Clean Reader, a new app allowing readers to remove any “profane” terms from books and replace them with less “offensive” words, announced last Thursday that it will be removing all books from its catalog. The move comes after mounting criticism from authors and organizations regarding censorship and lack of authorial consent. After Smashwords and Draft2Digital asked to have their books removed from Clean Reader’s offerings, Clean Reader decided to remove all remaining books as well.
The app allows readers to scrub their e-books to the settings of “clean,” “cleaner,” and “squeaky clean.” “Clean” removes the worst offenders; “squeaky clean” removes those as well as words considered less offensive such as “damn.” Even phrases such as “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” can be sanitized, with “Jesus” being replaced with “gee.”
Clean Reader’s creators, Jared and Kirsten Maughan, say they came up with the idea for the app when their oldest daughter came home from school upset at the foul language she had come across in a book she otherwise liked. Realizing there wasn’t an “app for that,” they decided to create one themselves.
Clean Reader has been available for a few months now, but pushback increased when the app gained national media coverage. One of the complaints, as noted by Jennifer Porter of Romance Novel News, is that some of the replacements are not even proper synonyms: a word for the female genitalia is replaced with “bottom,” for instance.
Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, posted a scathing criticism of Clean Reader on her blog. She notes that vocabulary is certainly one issue, but even worse is that Clean Reader changes the text without the author’s permission: “No permission is sought, or granted. There is no opt-out clause for authors or publishers.” The lack of authorial consent is concerning, as are issues of censorship. Harris continues, “Anyone who works with words understands their power. Words, if used correctly, can achieve almost anything. To tamper with what is written—however much we may dislike certain words and phrases—is to embrace censorship.”
Clean Reader’s tagline—“Read books, not profanity”—would seem to suggest that Clean Reader’s creators do not fully understand that the way an author chooses to have their characters express themselves is very much part of the book. A writer’s choice of language is intentional, and altering that intent by changing words deemed profane by the Clean Reader without consent is a kind of censorship.
From a legal standpoint, the Maughans have stated that Clean Reader “doesn’t make changes to the file containing the book. All Clean Reader does is change the way the content is displayed on the screen.” This is its defense against claims of copyright violation, echoing a case concerning Clean Flicks, a company that produced and rented versions of movies stripped of “offensive” scenes. That case, Clean Flicks of Colorado v. Soderbergh, held that the company’s production of edited versions was not a fair use of the original films. Clean Reader certainly points to an interesting digital loophole, one that Congress might be interested in tackling as it embarks on its review and update of copyright laws to reflect the realities of the digital age.
For now, it seems Clean Reader is finally responding to complaints. Writers and publishers pressured Inktera, a subsidiary of PageFoundry, to remove its bookstore from the offending app. As reported in The Digital Reader, Inktera announced last Wednesday that it would be doing just that. Shortly after, Clean Reader made the announcement that it would stop selling books through the app. The app itself, however, is still available for download, and readers can upload their own books into it for “cleaning.”
More changes are coming, according to the Maughans, although they haven’t yet announced what those changes will be.