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Clean Reader? I Dunno…

So this has been circulating the interwebbernets today a bit and it got me thinking. So much so, that it got me writing here. With any luck, it’ll get you thinking, too.

In any case, the short version goes something like this: Recently there was a mobile app (iDevice and Android) released called Clean Reader. It purports to allow users to “Read books, not profanity.” Writers all over have taken to condemning this app up and down… including a beautifully profane (albeit long) piece by Chuck Wendig. Almost universally, writers have been finding all sorts of fun and creative ways to hurl expletives in the direction of the Clean Reader developers (Chuck’s [can I call you Chuck?] “fuckecho through the canyon of fucks” definitely made me giggle).

But I’m torn.

I’m of a few different minds on this one… four to be specific. I’ll name them: Writer, Artist, Business Monkey, and IP Nerd. Let’s break it down into headings. Headings are fun…


This guy in my head vehemently agrees with Chuck and other like-minded writerfolk. You want to change my words? The ones I slaved over and picked for very specific reason? Kindly go fuck yourself. If you can’t handle profanity in a book, then you probably aren’t in the target audience of the book.

Sometimes profane language is haphazard, but generally speaking, it’s included within very specific contexts… and those contexts are likely to make you even more uncomfortable than a simple “shit” or “asshat” or “cumcicle” (gross).


However, I’ve had a very specific philosophy when considering my art—be it graphical, written, performance, what-have-you. Simply put, that philosophy states that once you put a piece of art out into the world, it’s no longer yours. It belongs to the audience. And the audience can interpret the work however it likes… even manipulate it.

With that perspective, Clean Reader is simply an extension of the audience. It might be ultimately hampering the communication of the intended message, but it’s not my place as an artist to control that. And as someone who is personally interested in open content and permissive licensing, it’s hard to get my ire raised too much by an app like Clean Reader.

Business Monkey

Technically speaking, what Clean Reader is doing is creating a translation of the work on the fly. Funny sidenote: when my first kid was born, I tried like hell to convince my wife that we should have a bilingual family. In public, we’d speak English, but in the home, we would speak Profanity. Sadly, I don’t think she ever seriously bought into that pitch.

In any case, in the business of books, translations are controlled by contracts. That is, a writer or publisher may allow a third party to translate a book and distribute it in a foreign market in exchange for splitting the proceeds. This means two things. First, the writer or publisher has to consent to the translation being done. And second, the writer or publisher gets paid. At this point, the second thing isn’t a huge deal for the app… but it may be if they start charging for their cleaning service. The first point, however, is a big one…. and it dovetails into my fourth mind.

IP Nerd

In my understanding of copyright law, Clean Reader is producing what’s called a derivative work. If the original work has a copyright with all rights reserved, then derivative works must be approved by the original copyright owner. If they are not, then the unsanctioned derivative can’t be distributed.

Now, from my understanding of the app, Clean Reader isn’t technically distributing the derivative work. You purchase the original property and it gets translated/filtered within the app. The derivative work is created on the fly, but it’s the original being distributed. So maybe Clean Reader is in the clear here… but maybe not. By allowing the purchase of books within their app’s ecosystem with the explicit purpose of making that derivative work, it could be argued that they’re effectively distributing the derivative work. It’s a bit shaky, though… because a ruling in that direction could easily have big ramifications as it pertains to copyright law.

A lot of writers have been slippery-sloping this in one direction (“What if a whole scene in my book is deemed offensive? Will a future version of this app bleep that scene out and replace it with dancing puppies?”), but let’s look at it in the other direction. There’s a lot of technological development going on these days for “legitimate” translation on the fly. Technically speaking, those auto-generated translations count as derivative works, too. Would writers nuke the future possibility of having their work read by a foreign audience because they want to maintain profanity in their native language?

I Dunno…

So yeah… four minds. Tallying it up, it looks like I have one “fuck no,” one “it’s no big deal”, one “will I get paid for this?” and one “this will be interesting to watch if it gets to be a legal battle.” And people wonder why I have a hard time figuring out where I want to eat lunch…

What’s your thoughts? Which mind do you agree with most? Do you have a different opinion altogether?