March 27, 2015

Cleaning Up Your Potty Mouth

The Clean Reader app can remove profanity from eBooks if you choose. Apparently, there’s an adjustable setting for how much you want the app to “clean” the text you are reading. You know, so the lowest activated setting would only pick up the F bombs, whereas the highest setting would grab every single bit of profanity. My understanding is the app would then, if possible, alter the text displayed accordingly. So “goddamn” would become something like “goshdarn”.

I think you can see why this has upset people. Especially writers.

Me? I have a mixed take on it.

On one hand, personally, I just think it’s dumb and sad. I mean the app came about after a father got worked up about his daughter encountering a “dirty word” in a book and he didn’t want to talk to her about it. That’s just terrible parenting. Not talking about something doesn’t make it not exist. You’re not doing your daughter any favors there, bud.

But America has this weird hang-up about profanity that I’ve never been able to understand. Especially in relation to our entertainment. We seem to be totally okay with brutality and violence but go apeshit over a dirty word or someone touching a breast intimately. I just can’t wrap my brain around people who critique things like, “Man, I was really loving that gruesome serial killer thriller until the FBI agent with the potty mouth showed up, had enjoyable consensual sex with the lead police offer and ruined the whole thing. One star!” I mean, to me, this is that politically-correct coddling so many people were accusing everything to do with trigger warnings of being. It’s unnecessary and it’s not helpful.

That’s how I feel about it personally. Yet, what say do I have over it? I mean really? What say?

Because it comes down to one thing. Is your copyright being violated? If it’s not thus ends your say over it. Period. You don’t get to decide what people do with your work or how they choose to experience your work or display your work once they own it, if those choices don’t violate your copyright.

The people who choose to use the app still have to pay for your book. Then they get to choose whether or not to activate the clean up function. What does that leave us with? Section 106 of the copyright law provides the copyright owner the rights to:

  • Reproduce the work in copies
  • Prepare derivative works based upon the work
  • Distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership or by rental, lease, or lending
  • Perform the work publicly
  • Display the work publicly


With my layman’s understanding of the law, it seems like the only possible point of contention would be “derivatives” based on your work. The designers of the app are arguing that they’re not violating copyright because all they’re doing is providing the reader a means to alter how the work is displayed, not altering the file itself. So the same way it’s not a copyright violation for another eReader to allow you to change the font and the text size, how the work is displayed, the app giving the reader the ability to clean up your dirty mouth isn’t either. Assuming the app sticks around and doesn't die after 95% of writers demand their work not be sold through the service, I think it’s going to prove to be one of those areas where copyright law is going to have to be updated to address the digital age. To me, I would think that if there’s a lot of profanity in the book then running it through the Clean Reader app could technically generate a work that was different enough that it could be considered a derivative, but I don’t know.


But here’s the thing.

When does that notion of derivative work run over the top of the fact that after someone has paid for your book, then whatever they want to do with that is their business as long as they’re not violating your copyright. If they want to hook their computer up to a projector and read your book in 100 point font on their living room wall, that’s their business regardless of how mad you are at the projector for allowing them the means to do it. If they want to cut all the pages out and use your book to wallpaper their bathroom, that’s their business no matter how much you might have a moral or artistic problem with scissors. 

Or is that a derivative work if they wallpaper out of sequence?


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