If this cover offends, you may not wish to buy the book. Just saying. (photo courtesy me, Katie West and Nightwood Editions)

Is the Clean Reader App Censorship and a Copyright Violation? Does a Bear Excrement in the Woods?

Let me start by saying I cannot effing believe I have to write this piece in the year 2015. There is an app called Clean Reader that promises to sanitize e-book text of profanity in the very act of delivering that text to the reader. The service apparently works so poorly it has trouble distinguishing between noun and verb forms of nasty words. There seems to be some question about whether or not this app is a good thing. Cue my disbelief.

Others have already written better, funnier responses to Clean Reader. This is my favorite so far. Because my fellow authors have almost uniformly responded to Clean Reader with hilarious outrage, I have reason to hope the world understands why Clean Reader should never, ever be allowed to sanitize books it delivers to the consumer.

But, then I read a piece by author Cory Doctorow — I Hate Your Censorship but I’ll Defend to the Death Your Right to Censor — defending the Clean Reader app… because of freedom. The title of Doctorow’s piece pretty much says it all.

I get it. Doctorow is a techno-libertarian of the highest order. I recently heard him speak at a book-tech conference in Toronto, and experienced full-on the highly entertaining tempest of his “from my cold dead hands” rhetoric around technology. I’m paraphrasing, but it’s something like… if we can’t do whatever we want to do with everything on our phones tall buildings will collapse, our children will live in chains, and the government will watch us pee. I understand his concerns. I tend to think they’re comically Unabomberish, but I understand them and I celebrate his whole weird way. He’s an author — let him say or write whatever he likes. Fill your boots.

But censorship as a blow for freedom? That needs some unpacking.

Let’s Begin With The Meaning Of Words

Words have meaning, and those meanings are important. Free does not mean comfortable, content, happy, blinkered, or unbothered by profanity. It means free. Full stop. Censorship does not mean freedom. It is also not a right. Censorship is the opposite of freedom. It is that which stomps on rights.

I just don’t think it’s possible to hand over to someone else my immediate engagement with a book (and that is the basic functionality of Clean Reader, as I understand it) and then say with any seriousness “oh thank goodness, now I’m free.” Willingly, happily, unfree? Yes, that works. But not free.

To me, the idea that consumer freedom involves allowing Clean Reader to function as a filter on text before that text reaches the reader is nonsensical. A free reader is an unfiltered reader. Someone please put that on a flag. Even if the consumer willingly uses Clean Reader, they are essentially imprisoning their experience of a text within Clean Reader’s rule-set. Prison is freedom?

And please, let’s not go down the rabbit-hole of reader-response. Yes, a reader can choose to skip around in a text, to ignore the author’s set narrative, to willfully misunderstand. None of that is the same thing as having a third party decide which words are good and which are bad, and then actively modify the text. The former is called acting on personal taste; the latter, censorship. They are not the same thing.

Does Clean Reader Infringe Copyright?

In my opinion, this app absolutely infringes copyright. There is somewhat ambiguous (US) case law on this. In 2006 a service in the realm of film rental, Clean Flicks, was defeated in court by the Directors Guild of America and a number of named artists (some folks named Scorsese, Spielberg, Jewison, Soderbergh, Altman and Redford) over their commercial practice of “editing” swears, nakedness and other unpleasantness out of DVD copies of films before renting or reselling them to the consumer. The most famous of these edits was the removal of Kate Winslet’s nude scenes from the film Titanic. Even the claim that the consumer was requesting this service did not persuade the US courts to allow Clean Flicks to continue.[i] The case was decided for the Directors.

On the other hand, an earlier exemption to US law, the Family Movie Act[ii], may in fact allow for technology that filters movies of offending content on personal technology. Importantly, the FMA does not allow for the rental or sale of pre-filtered content, and that may be an important distinction in any decision around Clean Reader. Clean Reader appears to marry a bookselling function with its filtering service.* Does this mean book and filter arrive on your device together? That looks like pre-filtered content to me.

As others have pointed out, the first sale doctrine as applied to books means that the consumer, once s/he has bought a physical copy of a book, might very well be allowed to rip out pages, cross out words or, as my grandmother used to do, underline boldly while scribbling “Yes!” in between lines of text. Okay. But importantly, the first sale doctrine does not apply to e-book purchasing (which is considered a robust form of licensing rather than a strict sale), so that defense, if used here, would likely not work.

Where I think the consumer-first, “I can do anything I want with what I buy” argument really falls down here is the fact that the consumer is not actually doing the censoring when s/he uses Clean Reader. The app is doing the editing, and unless apps have evolved to the point where they are now actually part of our individual human functioning and consciousness, that’s what I would call a commercial third-party intervention on the text, and I would hope there isn’t an e-book license out there from a respectable publisher that allows such a thing.

I’m almost willing to say that by blocking offending words and offering a set of alternative words to the reader, the Clean Reader app might be engaging in a form of translation. We’re all okay with translation, right? Except translation is one of the bundle of rights owned by the writer. Writers regularly authorize publishers and/or agents to deal with the translation rights for our work, and those rights are generally sold in commercial agreements. Translate text without one of those agreements, and you are infringing the rights of the author.

Quick Tangent To Further Consider “I can do anything I want with what I buy.”

No, I can’t. I can’t take my newly purchased weed-trimmer and edit my neighbour’s flower garden with it. That’s where my right to do things with my stuff runs up against my neighbour’s right to have her property respected. The same principal applies to text. You can own the Clean Reader app. You can own a copy of my book. But you can’t use the copy of my book and the Clean Reader app together to alter the words and meanings in my text. The text is my property. You haven’t bought it (you bought a copy of it). Keep your weed-trimmer away from my text.

And I haven’t yet touched on moral rights, which are more or less well-protected under copyright regimes depending on where an artist lives and works. I favour a strong moral rights protection as a kind of suit of armour against censorship, because I believe to my core in the integrity of artistic expression. For me this means my text stays exactly the way I laid it out, unless and until I approve of a change (within reasonable limits of fair dealing). By “reasonable limits of fair dealing” I mean that when someone pulls a small[iii] piece of my text out of the rest of the text in order to quote me, criticize me, satirize me, or teach something found in my work, I do not object.

I do object to Clean Reader coming anywhere near anything I’ve written.

What Can Be Done About All This?

Well, some authors have let Clean Reader know in plain, unfiltered language that they do not authorize the app to be used in any way with their work. I will do this as well, if they haven’t yet received that message through this article. Dear Clean Reader, my novel, The Uninvited Guest, will almost certainly offend some people with some of its words. You are not authorized to block or change those or any words in my work.

I encourage all authors to do the same.

John Degen is a novelist and poet. He is Executive Director of The Writers’ Union of Canada.


[i] Which leads me to believe that no-one, anywhere, ever, actually requested the removal of Kate Winslet’s nude scenes. But I could be wrong.

[ii] Thanks to Terry Hart of the Copyright Alliance and the CopyHype blog for legal knowledge on this point.

[iii] This takes us back to the meaning of words. Small means small. Small does not mean, as some educators in Canada now claim, entire chapters, short stories or a full 10% of a book. Those are big, which is the opposite of small.

*Pretty much as I was writing that sentence, it would appear the book-selling function partnered with Clean Reader pulled their service from the app. For now, at least, Clean Reader does not seem to be selling books. Thanks to author Matt Perkins for that info.