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Laptops for kids group sued over keyboard design

Email|Print| Text size + By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / November 28, 2007

A Nigerian entrepreneur based in Natick says the One Laptop Per Child Foundation of Cambridge stole his company's design for a multilingual keyboard.

Ade Oyegbola, founder and chief executive of Lagos Analysis Corp., or Lancor, has filed a lawsuit against the foundation in Nigeria, where the company's keyboard is patented.

Oyegbola said he also plans to sue in US courts, alleging copyright and contract violations.

"They can either do the right thing, sit down like they sat down with other companies and negotiate a royalty," said Oyegbola, "or they can just stop."

Robert Fadel, the foundation's director of finance and operations, said in a written statement that he would not comment on the lawsuit. "OLPC has not seen any legal papers related to the alleged suit as of this time," Fadel said. "OLPC has the utmost respect for the rights of intellectual property owners. To OLPC's knowledge, all of the intellectual property used in the XO Laptop is either owned by OLPC or properly licensed."

Nigeria is one of several developing countries currently testing the foundation's XO laptop. Dozens of the machines are being used at an elementary school outside the capital city of Abuja. The foundation ultimately hopes to produce the laptops for $100 or less, and sell them by the millions to Nigeria and other developing countries, which will give the laptops at no charge to poor schoolchildren.

Oyegbola said his company spent seven years developing the Konyin Nigeria Multilingual Keyboard, which can easily reproduce the unusual punctuation marks used in dozens of Nigerian languages and dialects.

For example, many words require accent marks placed over letters. This is usually done by adding special software to the keyboard, as well as an extra "AltGR" key rarely found on US keyboards. A user who wants to type an accented letter E hits the AltGR key and some other key. This reprograms the E key so that an accented E appears the next time the key is struck.

To improve on this complicated process, Oyegbola and his colleagues designed a keyboard with four shift keys, instead of the two found on standard keyboards. The extra shift keys activate keys that generate accents, tildes, umlauts, and other symbols. To type an accented E, the user first types E, then hits one of the extra shift keys and the accent key, causing the accent symbol to appear above the E.

Oyegbola said that Nicholas Negroponte, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who set up the foundation, purchased two of the company's Konyin keyboards in August 2006. In early January 2007, the foundation displayed an early version of its laptop, called the XO, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. A friend of Oyegbola who owned a Konyin keyboard saw the XO laptop and was struck by its resemblance to Lancor's product.

"He said, 'Wow, I saw your keyboard on OLPC,' " said Oyegbola, who then visited the foundation's website. There he saw a document describing a keyboard layout that seemed nearly identical to his own. "They didn't try to hide anything," Oyegbola said. "They just copied everything verbatim."

Oyegbola said that such copying is forbidden under Nigerian patent law. In addition, purchasers of the Konyin keyboard must agree not to use its software as a basis for making a similar product - a process called reverse-engineering.

Oyegbola claims that the foundation not only reverse-engineered his keyboard's software, but published it on a website used by its software developers. "They took our code and made it open source for all the world to see," Oyegbola said.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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