Can we please criticize Clean Reader without insulting readers?

So, there are a number of readers who object to profanity or obscenity or other “bad words”. Can’t say I’m one of them. And while I do sometimes think that popular culture has gotten a bit coarse, I don’t hold the position that I ought to have a personally-sanitized version of it. I do have private opinions on that position, in fact, and have expressed those opinions privately. But suffice it to say here, people do want those things and nobody in the history of the world has been persuaded to enjoy art differently because they were called a prude. Anyway, for pete’s sake, this is the internet: people want weirder crap than that, and usually get it.

There is now an app. (Isn’t there always?) It is tied to a particular vendor’s ebook store, and for any title purchased in that store, the app will go through and mechanically change ‘objectionable’ words to other words. The list and transformation rules are created by the app writers. The transformation rules are not terribly good. The resulting text is, from all I have seen, clunky and imperfect, sometimes risibly so.

Now, I use profanity in my work, albeit sparingly. I like to think I use it carefully, to achieve exactly the impact I need (though I acknowledge that the impact might be larger on some who aren’t as accustomed to it). I don’t have an enormous stake in this fight, except on principle. But I do have a small stake and that principle, and I consider them important.

There is much to criticize about the Clean Reader app, and a lot of folks are piling on. But I feel that most of them are aiming a little too widely in their criticism. I’m not interested in blaming the people who want this app. (Again: Internet. Weirder) By criticizing both the app and the people who want the app together, Clean Reader gets to cloak themselves in the mantle of “we’re in this together! we’re protecting this vital segment of the readership!” Aside from it being distasteful to attack readers (a decidedly endangered population it seems sometimes), attacking readers just gives the app makers cover to do some problematic things.

And boy howdy is what they’re doing problematic. The big issue with Clean Reader is simply this:
1. They are offering a service to their paying customers to perform that clunky mechanical alteration
2. They are only performing this service for books purchased through their platform — that is, money is changing hands as a required component of this service
3. They are not seeking or receiving permission from the author to perform this service using the author’s work as a basis

What it comes down to is that they have an ebook market, and they are seeking to distinguish that market (get people to buy from them instead of from Amazon) because the ebooks you buy from them can be “cleaned up”. Their version of my text is more palatable to a certain readership.

Here’s the thing, though: their is no “their version” of my text. They can use nicer fonts, a better store experience, intelligent bookmarks and dictionary services. But there is only one text. They don’t get to differentiate it by doing a copyedit/spellcheck pass, they don’t get to differentiate it by adding illustrations, they don’t get to differentiate it by giving it a happy ending. We went through this in the 19th Century, people: They don’t get to differentiate the text at all. It doesn’t matter whether they’re directly altering the file or altering on demand in the reader: they’re offering to present a different text to the reader as a way to persuade that reader to buy from them instead of from someone else. That is simply not acceptable. Only I have the right to do that with my work, or to contract someone else to do it.

Knock out any of these three legs, though, and we have an acceptable situation:
1. They don’t do it at all? That works.
2. They offer an app that does this for any ebook or text file regardless of provenance, and do not profit in any way? Well, I’ll definitely grumble, but the degree to which that empowers readers is probably ultimately on the side of fair use.
3. They make this opt-in for authors on a work-by-work basis? Awesome.

Of those options, the third is the best. It leaves everyone as happy as possible. Some are arguing that the first is the best, but it leaves wide swathes of readers unhappy, which means that (all else aside — endangered species, remember?) there will be another Clean Reader popping up sooner or later. And we’ll keep having this argument until either one side gets tired, or someone finds an unassailable legal loophole and gives authors the [digit].

I’m not thrilled with #2 as an app, even in the case where they make no profit and where readers aren’t tied to their ebooks. That’s because there’s plainly a market for this type of work. I could choose to put in the effort to produce a profanity-free version, or someone like Reader’s Digest could offer me $100 to do it so that they could sell it. We’d be competing against free, but we’d also be competing against stupid — which we more or less decided was a fair trade back with the Kindle read-aloud thing.

So, number three. Like any good compromise, #3 leaves everyone mad. It’s more work for Clean Reader. It puts authors on the spot. Readers don’t get all the works they might like. But it embodies the most good for the most people while also respecting creators’ rights (which is good for society). Plus, it’s mostly self-correcting: if there are too few authors opting in, then there’s more financial incentive for any one of them to break ranks and enjoy an untapped market. On top of that, it gives authors the opportunity to say “No to the app, but I’ll make a profanity-free version that you can sell”.

Anyway, yeah: Lots to criticize as it is. Can we lay off the readers now?

2 thoughts on “Can we please criticize Clean Reader without insulting readers?

  1. We went through this a few years back with a company (called, IIRC, CleanFlicks) which produced alternate, bleeped audio tracks and indices for DVDs (the user still had to purchase the original DVD); the courts called the bleeping metadata a derivative work and slapped it down. It looks to me like CleanReader is walking into the same issue, although if they do the filtering on the user device at the user’s command the fair use case might be stronger.

    There is a more serious issue here which is the extent to which copyright regulates copying a work versus preserves the author’s intentions about a work. Copyright has never been held to prevent readers from cutting up a book, or taking margin notes, or what-have-you, because those activities are not copying. But the modern trend seems to be in the other direction, to hold that copyright (or DMCA para-copyright) preserves authors’ intentions that, eg, the work only be readable with certain reader software, or only at certain limited times, or only with certain alterations.

    I’m worried that if copyright continues this swing, fair use basically goes away: Fair use is, at root, a set of uses that are legally preserved without regard to the author’s intention, even if they involve incidental copying. If incidental copying in aid of fair use or alteration of those copies after copying is only at an author’s discretion, fair use is a dead letter.

    I think that, alas, that puts me on the side of CleanReader, or at least an alternative form of CleanReader more conscientiously constructed (ie, that performs the bowdlerization after rather than before copying and, contra CleanFIicks, mechanically and without requiring work-specific bowdlerization metadata).

    1. You’re pretty much describing my case #2 above, though, which I agreed was maybe not desirable but permissible. There are some problems with the difference that stem from the relative paucity of control being given the reader in exchange for being locked into Clean Reader’s ecosystem (you can only perform home-Bowdlerization if you buy the ebook from them). This isn’t giving the reader any additional control the way it would be if the app performed arbitrary substitutions or deletions on any text (which could turn Clean Reader into something very different if an actually-empowered reader wished); it’s locking them into a platform, locking them into a third party’s word choices. Every run of their software produces one of a predetermined set of altered versions of the author’s work. They’re essentially selling four books in one package and letting the reader switch among them. It’s immaterial how they accomplish that switch, because the reader still has no control over anything but which version they’re reading.

      The way I see it, running a regex on one’s own file and reading the result is and must be fair use. Selling an altered copy of a book cannot be. There’s a line in there somewhere, and I think the current version (on those three legs) is on the wrong side of that line.

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