The dirt on Clean Reader


Silk’s Post #125 — Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, excoriated it on her blog on March 23rd. Chuck Wendig flung ferocious profanities at it on his Terrible Minds blog on March 25th. Cory Doctorow called it “stupid” on March 30th but defended readers’ rights on his blog boingboing, the same day that Jonathon Sturgeon worried about its contribution to the dystopian future of reading on Flavorwire. Even Margaret Atwood and Ian Rankin tweeted their objections to it.

It has been the rage for a couple of weeks across the blogosphere, in the twitterverse, and on the book pages of the great newspapers that care about literature.

clean-reader“It” is Clean Reader, for the few of you out there who may not yet be aware of the furor. Clean Reader is a new app for e-books that automatically scrubs out all the offensive words to the specifications of the reader. “Read books, not profanity,” its slogan urges. You can set it for “clean”, “cleaner”, or the totally sanitized “squeaky clean”. It swaps out “bad” words and substitutes innocuous ones, sometimes with unintentionally hilarious results.

Some of the most quoted examples are “freak” for “fuck”, “witch” for “bitch”, “heck” for “hell”, “chest” for “breast”,  “groin” for “penis”, “pleasure” for “blow job”, and (quite confusingly) “bottom” for the whole array of undifferentiated lady parts down there.

Can you imagine trying to write a love scene where the only words available to describe the erogenous zones of the female body were “chest” and “bottom”?

“Jesus Christ” is also automatically expurgated, which seems wildly counterintuitive. The assumption that his name is likely to be used in stories for blasphemous reasons (rather than for devotional reasons) earns the Son of God a place on the “bad word” list. Does anybody besides me find that paradox just plain weird?

Clean Reader was developed by a Christian couple from Idaho whose young daughter was disturbed by some “bad words” in a book she was otherwise enjoying. Apparently, they had an epiphany: why not find a way to expurgate all the words in e-books that right-minded people (presumably Christians) would disapprove of, and (bonus!) make some good coin from it?

(I confess to having a somewhat jaded view of their publicity story about Clean Reader’s genesis. It’s my observation that usually kids only get disturbed when they come upon “bad words” if they’ve been taught shame by their elders, and they know they’ll get holy “heck” if they’re caught. My recollection of my now-distant childhood is that kids were more likely to actively seek out the raciest books available for the express purpose of mining the pages for “bad word” gems. Maybe that’s why I turned out the way I did.)

Be all of that as it may, Clean Reader instantly created what would be described as a “crap storm” in its own euphemistic language. Writers revolted. They removed their titles from the clutches of Clean Reader’s expurgation machine. The rhetoric went nuclear. The most obvious, and loudest, objections were focused on censorship, free speech and violation of copyright. The collective fist of writerdom was shaken in outrage.

How dare you “freak” with our words, Clean Reader!

Amazingly, the writers won. Clean Reader was more or less forced to shut down its online book-selling operation. “Hooray!” the writers cheered. Joanne Harris called it “a small victory for the world of dirt.”

So. Problem fixed. Story over. Tempest in a teapot, right?


It’s waaaay more complicated than that. Not the morality of it – that’s the simple part, at least according to me.

The complicated part – the terrifying slippery slope – is a two-headed dragon.

The first dragon’s head is called The Law. Not everyone believes Clean Reader actually violated any laws by providing its profanity-scrubbing “service”, including, of course, the parents of Clean Reader. And their lawyers. Oh, yes, they anticipated all this (which, incidentally, makes their professed shock at writers’ outrage seem pretty phoney). In consultation with their legal advisors, they developed and sold this product in a manner designed to sneak through the cracks in the laws that are supposed to protect free speech and copyright, and prevent censorship.

The scheme is convoluted, but the centrepiece of the app is technology designed to mask over the “bad words” with substitutes, while leaving the original words within the original e-book file. The author’s actual words are invisible, but they’re still “there”, hiding in shame beneath cyber fig leaves. Thus, Clean Reader’s inventors claim, they actually haven’t censored anything. It’s the perfect crime – a way to violate the spirit of the law while staying within the letter of it.

But The Law is a strange beast that never walks in a simple, straight line. Cyber guru and activist Cory Doctorow, has suggested that outlawing what Clean Reader does violates the rights of readers, who should be able to choose what they consume. The right to free speech, he says, includes the right not to listen. Although he disapproves of Clean Reader’s aims as “offensive”, he cites the many ways we use computers to filter what we receive and claims it’s the readers’ right to change what they want to put in front of their own eyeballs.

This is where it gets even more complicated.

If a reader chooses to take a censorship marker to a printed book that they’ve bought for their own use, that’s presumably not illegal (or at least enforceably so) – it’s just stupid. (Fortunately, stupid isn’t illegal yet, or most of us would find ourselves in jail at some point in our lives).

But is the use of Clean Reader really the same thing?

While it probably would need to be tested in court, this proposition is “iffy” at best. The Society of Authors has stated, “… the app contradicts two aspects of the author’s moral rights, namely the right of integrity and the right of false attribution.” Moral rights include the right of an author to object to derogatory treatment of a work. Note that the Society’s statement places the blame on the app, not the reader who uses it.

And there lies the twist. Apparently, at least some people interpret Clean Reader – which was, up until March 26th, also retailing e-books on its website, as well as giving away free downloads of its app – as a real censor, even if virtual. According to reports, e-book distribution channels such as Inktera (a subsidiary of Page Foundry) and Smashwords pulled their titles off the Clean Reader website, citing terms of book selling agreements that do not give retailers permission to alter the works. Ultimately it was this marketplace reaction that caused Clean Reader to shut down its e-bookstore.

At the moment, the tap has been turned off on Clean Reader’s big profit centre. They’ll now have to somehow change their technology and/or their business proposition to meet the standards for moral rights demanded by writers and the broader book publishing and distribution industry … or else look forward to a potentially expensive test of their product’s legality from the challenges sure to come.

So the marketplace works! This should bring joy to the hearts of all capitalists! We can all rest easy now, right?


There’s that other dragon’s head, and it’s called Cyberspace. In cyberspace, we can do many wonderful and terrible things that were never possible in regular space, a.k.a. the real world. It’s an incredible new universe: a free-for-all frontier, full of promise and peril. And we’re really only at the dawn of figuring out the rules in this everything’s-possible universe.

Cyberspace challenges the order of everything. It gives power to the powerless, which is both wonderful and horrible, depending on what the newly empowered do with it. Cyberspace is a great leveller, where the small can become big, and the big can become small, in an instant. Cyberspace brings the world to us – and us to the world – with virtually no restrictions. In doing so, it explodes the boundaries of privacy and rights.

One of the first casualties of the Cyberspace dragon was the very nature of ownership of intellectual property, and the moral and economic rights of its creators. Artists, musicians, photographers, writers … every member of the creative community is working in a completely new world, where the old regulations are struggling to keep up with the new technologies.

The focus of this upheaval in the arts has mostly been economic. Whole industries, including publishing, have been turned on their heads. Creatives are having to find new ways of making a living from their work, forging new pathways as the old solid ground crumbles beneath their feet. And a huge part of that “solid ground” had to do with ownership and rights – not just the right to be paid for original work, but the right to protect it from censorship, misuse and corruption.

In The Guardian, a couple of days after Clean Reader closed its online book store and retreated to the drawing board, Sam Leith wrote a piece titled, “Clean Reader is a freaking silly idea, but in the end you can’t stop your audience being philistines.” Maybe. It’s certainly tempting to ridicule the inanity of replacing the word “vagina” with the word “bottom” and thinking you’ve somehow made the world a cleaner, better place.

But I’m afraid we can’t make light of the bigger issues Clean Reader raises. Cyberspace is a universe without boundaries, a place that may prove to be ungovernable altogether. That’s where we’re now sending our words – the books and stories and blogs we pour our hearts into and stay up all night writing. We hit “send” or “publish” and blast them off into this new frontier.

If it’s up to anyone, it’s up to us what happens to them after that.

The rights we have – or think we have – as writers may not survive long if we don’t defend them.

14 thoughts on “The dirt on Clean Reader

    • Thanks Elizabeth! This particular story (Clean Reader) is still a moving target — I’m sure they won’t give up in their quest for a world without naughty words. But really, my worry is it feels like the first little trickle of water that precedes the flood. I’m not sure there’s really settled law for this kind of thing … guess we need to keep our eyes open!

    • Thanks for your comment Andrea. I know this seems like just one more thing for writers to worry about now that e-publishing has opened the door to various kinds of new challenges to intellectual property rights — but one thing this story does illustrate is the large, proactive online community of writers out there who aren’t going to take censorship of any kind lying down. The saga continues, I’m sure …

  1. Excellent post, Silk! This discussion will continue for some time. On the subject of free speech, the Economist published a thought-provoking article, titled ‘First – and last – do no harm’, just after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It’s still online.

    • You’re so right Helga, this is only the beginning, I’m sure. I will look up the Economist story. The real test of our tolerance for any kind of censorship is always the very worst case of distasteful or dangerous material. But I’m especially, deeply offended by self-appointed morality police who seem to feel that in order to enjoy their “rights”, they should be free to strip away the rights of others.

  2. This “brave new world” of cyberspace is much like the old frontiers, where the rules and laws of “civilized society” often broke down. In part, that was due to factors such as distance and too few people to enforce the old ways. But it was also due to the necessities and opportunities of the new environment. There was the potential to create a better society than had been left behind.

    I don’t know how the rights and responsibilities of authors, agents, editors, and publishers will evolve with these new technologies, but there are so many angles to consider as your essay so clearly shows!

    • Great comments, JM! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I really like your historic perspective on this and I think you’ve nailed exactly what’s happening. I remember reading Jane Jacobs’ “Dark Age Ahead” a few years ago and it frankly scared me. Change always brings opportunity and danger, and the pace of change today really demands a lot of all of us to keep on top of things!

  3. Silk, what an amazing, thoughtful essay. I just shared this on my facebook page, and will do the same with Linkedin, hopefully others will do the same. Bottom line: if I write it… I don’t want anyone else messing with it!

    • Thanks Paula — I really value your perspective on this as a lawyer, as well as a writer. Because of the new paradigm of e-publishing and the tectonic shifts in the whole publishing industry, I think writers currently sit in an uncomfortable place in terms of their ownership of the intellectual property they have created.

      That I condemn the regressive prudery of Clean Reader goes without saying, but this whole attempt to use technology to pervert copyright protection raises bigger issues. I don’t want to play Chicken Little, but I do think we need to be very proactive about protecting our rights as creators, even if the threat comes from people who are hard to take seriously. Who could possibly be offended by a word like “breast”? The laughable absurdity of this masks the fact that it’s actually quite scary.

      • This is such an important wake-up, Silk. I immediately thought of the Texas Board of Education, which has long stricken words, books, and unflattering (read: anti-Republican doctrine) history from texts. Now, this process of oversight and control is multiplied across the country’s school districts. Banned Book Day gives publicity to books that have been damned and banned. Great literature, but sometimes not great literature. I know the Harry Potter books were attacked by the Right as promoting magic, i.e., the occult.

        We now live in a long-ago foreseen time when technology can be utilized by individuals, and not just big entities like the NSA, in a way that affects millions. I’m particularly concerned about the attempts by cable companies who all screen and limit content that runs against their corporate board’s values or opinions. That means individual emails and electronic communications.

        Thinking aloud, “someone” should create an artists’ (meaning all artists, including writers) watchdog group and website(s), and of course, a publicist, to report to the public any attempts to subvert creative expression. Immediately, these words on page and I’m thinking ‘what about….’ Exceptions?

  4. Elizabeth, I think you’re right — even though the task of uniting artists could be a cat-herding exercise. However, I was heartened to see immediate reaction from many writers, including literary “stars”, to this whole fiasco. What I’m hoping is that Clean Reader has shaken writers out of their comfort zone and will trigger future vigilance. The worry is that people will brush it off as an anomaly — an irritation that’s been dealt with and is no longer a threat. That might be like chopping down one tree and missing the forest behind it.

  5. I am hoping it will end up as a joke used by many to start with just to have a laugh and then by a few fanatics who have a problem their body images and/or have inherited religious views of the body as a dirty object. I have to say that, like you, my schooldays (very polite UK boarding school) featured attempts to create REALLY Bad Word combinations. We didn’t have much material to hand, but our efforts didn’t corrupt us. I heard a snatch on the radio of censored Lady C. I giggled as much as I did when having snippets of the original read out in the school dormitory.

    • Thanks for your comment Hilary. I remember sneaking Lady C. from my mom’s bedside table/bookshelf, where it was hiding behind the Mickey Spillaine mysteries. Imagine … great literature so risqué that had to use pulp fiction as a cover-up. Prudery is one stupid reason for censorship, but there are other reasons more frightening!

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