A new app that allows readers to swap swear words in their novels with sanitised versions is facing a backlash from furious authors, who have accused it of setting a dangerous precedent of censorship.The app, entitled Clean Reader, has been designed to take explicit words out of any book printed in electronic format - with or without permission from its author - to swap them with child-friendly versions.
(I'm not linking to Clean Reader directly—don't want to give them any free inbound Google mojo.)
Mangling an author's text is a clear violation of the author's Moral rights, an element of copyright which is very weak in the United States and very strong elsewhere (primarily in civil law jurisdictions). (The moral right is the right of an author to be identified as the creator of a work, and for the work represented as their creation to be unaltered by other hands, so that the relationship between creator and created work is clear.) Mangling an author's text may be legal or illegal in the USA, depending on whether it occurs before or after sale. After all, I can't stop you buying one of my books and editing it with a sharpie: it's a physical object and according to the first sale doctrine, it's yours to do with as you wish. I may be able to legally stop you modifying an ebook, though: ebooks are not sold but a limited license to download and use them is granted in exchange for money—a fine legal distinction that was borrowed from the software business's tame sharks—and that limited license may permit or deny such usage.
Clean Reader claim to get around this by (a) being a licensed distributor (they provide the app and sell books for it sourced from PageFoundry, a distributor who back-end onto various publishers), and (b) the censorship is performed on the reader device by the reader app, once the book has been purchased and downloaded. There's a bunch of case law around whether or not it's legal to do this to movie rentals or downloads, or legal to skip advertisements in recorded programming on your TiVo—it gets murky fast. But let's suppose they're right and what they're doing ("protect the children! At any cost! From naughty words like 'breast' and 'fuck'!") is legal.
Speaking as an author who deeply resents the idea of his books being mutilated to fit the prejudices of a curious reader's blue-nosed and over-protective parents (hint: I write for adults—if you don't think my books are suitable for your or your child's tender eyes, don't buy them), what can I do about this?
It's worth quoting some correspondence posted on Absolute Write at this point. The PR contact for Clean Reader had this to say, in answer to a public enquiry:
As for how we deal with context, the app does look for specific sequences of letters lick cock, shit, or f--k. But it also requires white space on both sides of the word. So your example of cockapoo would not be blocked by the app. But cock a poo would have cock blocked. There will be times when the app blocks a word that isn't being used as a profanity. Jesus Christ is another example. If a reader is reading the Bible with Clean Reader there will be quite a lot of words blocked; hell, damn, ass, Jesus, etc. The user will have to make a judgement call as to whether or not to use the "Clean Reader" feature with each book. If it's a religious book they may just opt to turn the feature off. Or if it's a book about chickens they may want to leave it off also. But for example, I'm currently reading American Sniper. It seems to have at least one F-word on every page and sometimes multiple per page. It's frankly a little over the top. Otherwise the book is fantastic and entertaining. So even if the app blocks out a word every now and again that wasn't necessarily being used as a profanity, I'd rather deal with that then have to read F--- every page. Those who have written articles about Clean Reader have typically downloaded a book that is riddled with swear words to show examples of how frustrating the book would be with Clean Reader. But I can tell you we aren't selling many of those types of books. I've read several books with the app and I typically only see a word blocked once every few pages. And it's usually pretty easy to get the gist of what was being said. It's just nice to not actually see it.
So. While it might be possible to get my books pulled from that particular distributor, I am more inclined to deal with this idiocy by getting creative with my scatalogical vocabulary.
No more "fucks" freely interjected; instead I shall steal "unclefucker" from South Park.
No more "cunt!" as a free-standing gender-neutral insult[*]; instead it'll have to be "cuntfart!" or "pissflaps!" or "clunge!" (go look it up) ...
... But that's not going far enough.
I am pretty sure there's plenty of context in which the censorbot can be induced to fuck-up a perfectly clean paragraph beyond all recognition, simply by removing words delimited by whitespace. "Chimney-breast" for example, becomes "Chimney-chest". "The cunt line of the mainbrace" becomes "the bottom line of the mainbrace".
How far do you think I can take this?
Cory Doctorow takes a radically different approach ("I hate your censorship, but I'll defend to the death your right to censor"). I think he's missing the distinction between censorship and editing—that what's happening here is not straightforward "you can't read that" blocking, but actual substitution of someone else's words for my own, subtly or unsubtly corrupting and misrepresenting the author's words. One thing is clear, though: while we're having a doctrinal argument, it's important to keep in mind the essential fact that we both think that Clean Reader users are stupid poopy-heads.
[*] That's what "cunt" is, in Scottish vernacular—usage differs wildly across the anglophone world, and in Scotland it carries much less gendered misogynistic freight than it does in American usage.