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Monday, December 24, 2012

Granite Geek: A cool idea - fonts to help dyslexics read - becomes a battle between developers

David Brooks

Here’s an interesting idea: Develop a font with shapes and spacing that make it easier for dyslexics to read by making it harder for them to confuse words and letters.

As I mentioned in this column in October, Abelardo Gonzalez, who lives part of the time in Wolfeboro, certainly found the idea interesting. He developed such a font, called it OpenDyslexic, and released into the Internet for free, as an open-source project. It drew considerable attention after it was picked up by Instapaper, a popular offline reading app that offered it as an option. ...

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Here’s an interesting idea: Develop a font with shapes and spacing that make it easier for dyslexics to read by making it harder for them to confuse words and letters.

As I mentioned in this column in October, Abelardo Gonzalez, who lives part of the time in Wolfeboro, certainly found the idea interesting. He developed such a font, called it OpenDyslexic, and released into the Internet for free, as an open-source project. It drew considerable attention after it was picked up by Instapaper, a popular offline reading app that offered it as an option.

But before that, it turns out, this idea was interesting to Christian Boer, a graphic artist in The Netherlands who developed and sells a font called Dyslexie. And this is where the story gets less pleasant.

Dyslexia, as you probably know, is a condition in which brains don’t properly process certain symbols – reversing letters or scrambling words is a common symptom. These fonts tackle the problem in various ways; the most obvious is that letters are bottom heavy, to make it obvious which end is up.

They also include lots of other tweaks to quickly signal to readers when something is wrong, from spacing to the fact that lower-case “b” and “d” do not look like mirror images of each other.

As I said, it’s a neat idea, and the work done by both these guys is so innovative that they have spoken about it at regional TedX conferences – Boer in Dubai and Gonzalez in Mumbai, India.

Both guys also have some dyslexia, and it’s great to see people tackling their problems in an interesting way.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a happy story, because Boer says Gonzalez’ open-source project infringes on his work, which he said he developed as part of his college research beginning in 2008, at the University of Twente in The Netherlands.

“People who know me and see this are really mad,” said Christian Boer, whom I interviewed last week (thank you, Skype).

Boer contacted me because he found my column online as part of his efforts to counter the press that OpenDyslexic got in the U.S. That includes some cease-and-desist orders against developers who use OpenDyslexic in work available overseas.

For his part, Gonzalez says he developed his own font independently based on widely available research.

“He’s claiming that I’m doing something that I haven’t done,” said Gonzalez, whom I also interviewed last week (thank you, FairPoint).

He argues that Boer is targeting him because OpenDyslexic is free, undermining the market. Dyslexie costs $69 for home use and $445 for schools with up to 800 students. Gonzalez said the open-source version will be able to help many more people.

The dispute has been percolating for a while, but Boer is taking the initiative. Earlier this month Instapaper switched from OpenDyslexic to Dyslexie, which also has been used for a few books in The Netherlands and a series of children’s graphic books in the United States called Neon Tiki Tribe.

Gonzalez, who works for Blue Cross Blue Shield in Massachusetts, said Boer’s opposition has led him to redouble his efforts in his font, moving beyond “hobbyist” effort.

Gonzalez says his version has more glyphs – a general term for letters and characters – than does Boer’s font, and possessed italic and bold options earlier. He also said he was “working on” legal issues, in the face of what he called threats from colleagues and friends of Boer.

Boer’s legal options are limited because typefaces aren’t covered by copyright in the United States, unlike in most countries. This removes the major legal tool for people who believe their products have been swiped.

(Actually, it’s more complicated than that: Bit-mapped fonts can’t be copyrighted in the U.S. because they’re considered pictures of typefaces, scalable fonts can be copyrighted because they’re considered software programs. Got it?)

Boer calls the U.S. font-copyright status a “loophole” that makes OpenDyslexic legal in this country, but says he is within his rights trying to curtail it, because the font has been downloaded and used in other countries, where he believes it violates copyright law.

Gonzalez doesn’t have a list of customers, if that’s the right term for free software, but says, “I have received emails from international people that were planning to or are using it.”

None of this has been taken to the courts.

I have no idea who’s in the right here and don’t even know whom to root for.

Usually in this kind of dispute, one side is a big corporation that you can portray as the bad guy, but it doesn’t seem like Boer is exactly rolling in the loot from his Dyslexie sales. They are a couple of interesting guys with a serious dispute.

As somebody whose livelihood is threatened because it’s easy for people to create (legitimately and otherwise) free alternatives to what I’m paid for, I have reason to lean toward Boer.

But as somebody who likes free software and the ideals of the open-source movement, I have reason to lean toward Gonzalez.

And as somebody who liked both guys when I talked to them, I have reason to lean toward Rodney King’s famously wistful “Can we all get along?”

So I’m afraid I can’t offer a moral or a conclusion, except maybe that reality can be a mess even when you’re doing cool, useful things.

That’s not an interesting idea, alas – just a true one.

Granite Geek runs Mondays in The Telegraph, and online at www.granitegeek.org. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GraniteGeek.