Clean Reader is a free speech issue

Originally published at:

1 Like

As Charlie Stross mentioned, while legal complaints against Clean Reader won’t stand on typical copyright grounds, there’s a case to be made that the author’s moral rights might be infringed upon by this – in other words, a warped version of a text as filtered through Clean Reader might be considered to be a misrepresentation of the original work. (I don’t personally buy this – after all, as it stands now, a user needs to install CleanReader and enable it explicitly; if CleanReader was enabled by default on some devices – for instance, if a school system decided this was a good idea – that’d be a different matter.)


Good points all around. In even simpler terms, if you can’t change it, you don’t own it.

I hope that most authors want their users to own copies of their books, and don’t believe in limited-rights licensing.


To me firstly it is the simple issue of being able to buy or mod any gadget to do anything you want from inserting hardcore porn to swapping in darn and gosh.
Not my cuppa tea but to each their own preference.

1 Like

Is there a demo of this that works on a single paragraph of text?

When will they come out with Dirty Reader– an app that inserts gratuitous profanity into a text.

See the motherfuckers Dick & Jane.

Run, you asslicker Dick.
Run, you cocksucker Jane

Run, dogfucker Spot, run.


On generative-text mailing list I’m on, someone was talking about writing this just today.

Come to think of it, he’s a seldom-posts Boinger.

My primary issue with it (and bowdlerizing of works in general) is that the meaning is often lost with such changes, beyond any change in the tone and character of the writing.

For example, softening/replacing the fuck from The Catcher in the Rye ruins the entire point of its inclusion in the first place. Even the title is less relevant without it. The whole point of its inclusion was Holden’s desire to protect children from growing up too fast and learning what it meant and worrying over adult things (which is ironic considering Salinger’s interest in much younger romantic partners…). Not to mention that by the grade that The Catcher in the Rye was required reading in high school, fuck was pretty mild for the vocabulary that my peers and I were using.

Unless the original work intentionally lampshades bowdlerization, such as with The Christmas Story, its better not to experience it at all rather than experience it bowdlerized. If children aren’t old enough to read such words, they shouldn’t be reading the texts that include them. In my experience precocious children understand how to self-regulate their usage of swear words and can handle learning words they know they’re not “allowed” to use yet.


I’m pretty sure I agree with Cory on this, but I’d still like to see the other side of the argument. Why should this app be banned? Anybody?

1 Like

You cannot make money or commercially resell a book that you have altered without the author’s express permission. Sure you can buy a print book, use a sharpie and cross out the words, you can even burn that book, but you cannot then turn around and resell that altered copy of the work. That is not only unethical, but violates copyright law. The tech was using a loophole to get around copyright law by putting an overlay that changes the words, but the book is still being displayed differently. The app is free. Clean Reader was making money from eBook royalties. The book catalog was being powered by Inktera which has a specific clause regarding usage of said catalog expressly forbidding the modification of said works. Clean Reader violated this agreement. Just because you buy an eBook doesn’t mean you own it. You are merely purchasing a license to read the book as the author intended. No one owns the right to a book except for the copyright owner. I think if Clean Reader had sought the permission of individual authors this would not have been an issue.

1 Like

While I completely agree that banning Clean Reader is pretty dumb, I honestly don’t want a future wherein readers get to decide how they read.

Being able to selectively ignore or alter content, especially content you don’t like, is the purview of the willfully ignorant. The human mind already has a variety of elaborate mechanisms for dealing with uncomfortable truths. It doesn’t need help from technology.

1 Like

Page Foundry and Inktera both pulled out of Clean Reader. They no longer have a catalog of books they can sell. One thing people don’t touch upon is that Clean Reader didn’t seek permission from authors whose works they were profiting from. They were saying they had the rights to use those works…but there is no way any authors would choose to distribute to Inktera if they knew their works could be altered without their notice. Inktera’s usage agreement is very specific regarding their book catalog.

[Unless otherwise expressly authorized in this Agreement, any reproduction, redistribution, transmission, sale, broadcast, public performance, sharing, rental or lending, adaptation, sub-license, modification, promotion, commercial use, sale, transfer, assignment or other use of the Content provided through the eStore or its Services, including, without limitation, any use that requires a synchronization license with respect to the underlying musical composition, is a violation of copyright law and is expressly prohibited.]

I don’t believe that cleaning up certain profane words makes a book more palatable for certain age groups, if anything it can make the text even more confusing. Just because you replace the F word doesn’t mean that the context is erased. I believe that young people should be reading age-appropriate material, not adult books with “bad” words removed.

Generally, schools will ban certain books rather than alter the text.

First of all you are using “own” and “own” in two different ways. And second, I was talking about the way things should be.

If you buy a physical book, you own the book.

You do not own the rights to the book. No one ever said you did. But you still own the book. Note that in the States, at least, once you have bought that physical book you are entitled to resell it, rent it, give it away, or destroy it, through the first-sale doctrine.

Now, it is true that for most ebooks, you’ve just been licensed the right to read the book. But this is an ugly system put in by publishers, not authors. That’s why I said “I hope that most authors want their users to own copies of their books, and don’t believe in limited-rights licensing.

For example, authors like Cory sell versions of their ebooks DRM-free pdfs that can be freely modified by the user.

Whether your version of the technicality (“Clean Reader was using a loophole to get around copyright law”) or Cory’s version (“Clean Reader was providing the means for a user to modify their own version, after they had bought the unaltered version”) is correct doesn’t really concern me, that’s for the courts if necessary (although I’m inclined to agree with Cory’s interpretation). But my comment and most of Cory’s article was about what should be.


Is it better that closed-minded people read works that have been clearly edited? Or that they never read the works at all?

Whether or not you will live in a future wherein readers get to decide how they read, you absolutely already live in a present where readers get to decide what they read.

To use Cory’s example, I bet that hardly any climate-change denialists have actually read any books that seriously try to explain climate change to them. (Some have, I’m sure, but not the average YouTube commenter…)

In general I oppose this type of bowdlerizing for one main reason: it gives readers a major misconception about the work AND the world it comes from.

TV and movies up through the 70’s have given us a bland, highly suspect view of history where no one every swears and the bad guy never wins. I remember many conversations when the HBO series “Deadwood” first came out where friends would proclaim, “but people never talk like that.”

The hell they didn’t.

No, I don’t support readers having the ability to read works the “way that they want.” Read it or don’t.


I believe you used the phrase “F word”. Why not just say Fuck?
This is an app that lets you modify the language based on your own sensibilities. It doesn’t do anything to force anyone else to use it. Banning anything is censoring something, so it’s hypocritical to suggest to ban a product that is used to filter out content someone finds offensive.
Forcing someone to read something is exactly the same as prohibiting them, not freedom. And you would rather not having kids read a really good book if all that is preventing it is that there are curse words that are not appropriate for school?

And geeze, why does everyone consider not letting someone say fuck as censorship. Removing entire characters from a book, that’s censorship. Changing the ending, thats censorship. Fuck is crass and overused and really doesn’t add anything to the actual content. If someone doesn’t want to read that crap and it doesn’t affect you in any way, all the power to them.

My only concern about it is that people should perhaps have the ability to change writers works for only themselves, but not for others. With any readers shared by people, they would be misrepresenting the work of an author to others, perhaps without them being aware of it.


I suspect that authors such as Cory have given those express permissions for their work to be modified. If Clean Reader had sought author approval their app would have been a non issue. Inktera removed the books from their app so they can’t make money from book sales. Copyright law as it pertains to digital works is still in flux. I agree with the authors who lashed out against this app. Freedom of speech to all–just don’t expect to make money from it.

Conceptually, there could be a lot of differences, even if we assume current copyright laws.

Ads are typically different than actual content, with different authors and different copyright holders. Removing ads (or not watching them) doesn’t really alter a unified copyrighted work of a single author; it’s just viewing some copyrighted works, and not viewing other copyrighted works. The analogy to ads is more appropriate if we a are thinking of product placement or old-time TV and radio shows where the advertising was part of the program and performed by the program’s actors: in those cases removing the advertising sections would be disrupting and altering a single copyrighted work.

Annotations of political ads would, I’m sure you agree, fall squarely under Fair Use, as would Murdoch alerts.

Of course, copyright itself is, in some senses, inherently anti-free speech (and I understand that people here are unlikely to agree that copyright can actually encourage speech, even if that is the raison d’être of US copyright law).

Well, given that CleanReader works on eBooks, he has a great point about how it would be trivially easy to change the eBook license to prohibit this kind of censor-ware. This, combined with precedent like Napster and the courts’ increasing willingness to decide that old rules don’t analogize well to technology (this ranges from the SCOTUS opinions about digital broadcasting in ABC v. Aereo and four justices’ opinions about technology in the GPS-tracking case of US v. Jones), means that it might be possible for a publisher using licenses that forbid alterations to go after CleanReader (as opposed to individual users).

1 Like

I remember in 10th grade, we read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar– specifically the version that was bound up in the classes anthology. I recall playing *Casca."

Being averse to carrying a big heavy book around, I brought a slim volume that had been sitting around my family’s library.

And it worked well, until I started to declaim verses that weren’t there
IIRC, it was this passage.

Against the Capitol I met a lion,
Who glared upon me, and went surly by,
Without annoying me: and there were drawn
Upon a heap a hundred ghastly women,
Transformed with their fear; who swore they saw
Men all in fire walk up and down the streets.
And yesterday the bird of night did sit
Even at noon-day upon the market-place,
Hooting and shrieking. When these prodigies
Do so conjointly meet, let not men say
‘These are their reasons; they are natural;’
For, I believe, they are portentous things
Unto the climate that they point upon.

I have no idea why this passage was abridged, but it was disturbing to know that the script had been altered in a way that does not seem to reflect differences between quartos and folios. Yes, many stage productions omit lines for brevity, but a silent alteration of the text is pretty creepy.