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.
“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.