They Freak You Up, Your Mum and Dad | Susan Hall · IP/ICT Lawyer

They Freak You Up, Your Mum and Dad

Erasmus as censored by the Catholic church

When Jared and Kirsten Maughan’s daughter came home from school complaining that there were swear words in the book she had been reading in the school library, her parents decided that there ought to be an app for that. The result was Clean Reader, an e-reader app which, according to its authors, allows the user to

Prevent profanity in books from being displayed on your screen with Clean Reader; the only e-reader that gives you the power to hide swear words in any e-book.

Simply select from three settings to determine how clean you want your books to appear. Clean Reader then scans your book and prevents offensive words and phrases from showing up on the screen as you read. Every time a swear word is blocked from display a less offensive alternative with the same general meaning can be displayed.

The same general meaning can, unfortunately, cover a multitude of sins, as the title of this post — a quotation from Philip Larkin arr. Clean Reader — demonstrates. The straight word-substitution approach, especially where the same word can be used as a noun or a verb and the suggested substitute cannot, produces a dizzingly peculiar effect. Jennifer Porter, writing online for Romance Novel News noted another oddity: all words connoting female genitalia, from the most clinical to the most uncouth, are rendered “bottom” , producing results like the following:

“Where shall I [freak] you, Victoria? Where do you want my [groin]?”
“I want it in … my [bottom].” from Jackie Ashenden’s Living in Secret

Given that one of the reasons Lady Chatterley’s Lover was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, besides its multiple uses of the word “fuck” (as a verb), was its depiction of a scene of anal intercourse, this approach seems to create more problems than it solves.

The app’s decision to change “breast” to “chest” in all circumstances also raises feminist eyebrows. It seems hardly possible to advise on breast self-examination for early signs of cancer, proper fitting for bras or the pros and cons of different baby-feeding methods if the relevant body part is deemed too profane to mention.

As for modern pagans and dog breeders alike, they are each likely to be both baffled and insulted by the assumption that “witch” is an universally appropriate substitution for “bitch.” Furthermore, it makes a complete nonsense of the moment when, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Molly Weasley unleashes her inner tigress, brandishes her wand and takes down Bellatrix Lestrade with a snarled, “Not my daughter, you bitch!”

Numerous authors (most notably Joanne Harris) have raised strong objections to the Clean Reader App, mostly based on moral and aesthetic grounds. Authors, they point out, do not choose words for having “the same general meaning”: they choose them for the precise effect that that word has at that place in the mouth of that character at that point in the work.

But does the Clean Reader also contravene any legal rights of authors? Potentially, under English law, yes.

The argument made by the producers of the Clean Reader app is that it only alters how the reader perceives the text, leaving the text itself unaffected. Furthermore, the app can be disabled. However, this ignores crucial differences between physical or electronic copies of books.

If I buy a physical copy of a book, there is nothing (except for personal taste and the fear of mockery from friends and family) to stop me turning it into a lamp-base or hollowing it out as a place in which to conceal extra-strong mints.
The work, once sold, is mine to do with as I like — provided, that is, I do not copy its contents or do any of the other acts (such as adaptation) which copyright law reserves to the author and the author’s licensees.

Not so with an e-book. There is an inevitable act of copying (a primary infringement, unless authorised) in the act of reading a textfile by means of an e-book reader; it is copied from one location in the device to another. That act needs to be licensed, and a licence may (within reason) impose whatever terms it wishes.

Arguably, the Clean Reader app generates new works which make use of very substantial parts of the author’s original text. Each level of the Clean Reader (“Clean”, “Cleaner” and “Squeaky Clean”) finds new words to alter, but, since the app always substitutes the same words on each level (so far as one can tell) it certainly appears at first sight that the purveyors of the app are offering to supply works (specifically, three versions of the author’s original text, altered or amended to a greater or lesser degree) which the author has not intended to supply.

Most software licences prohibit attempts to amend, alter, decompile or otherwise change the underlying code. Since e-book licences usually model themselves on software licences, the odds are that use of the Clean Reader with respect to most e-texts is expressly prohibited under the terms of relevant licences. If not now, in some cases, it seems likely it will be in the future.

And this is before one even has to consider moral rights, specifically, the right set out in s.80 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to object ot “derogatory treatment of the work”. This comprises the following:

Right to object to derogatory treatment of work.

(1) The author of a copyright literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work, and the director of a copyright film, has the right in the circumstances mentioned in this section not to have his work subjected to derogatory treatment.

(2) For the purposes of this section—
(a) “treatment” of a work means any addition to, deletion from or alteration to or adaptation of the work, other than—

(i) a translation of a literary or dramatic work, or
(ii) an arrangement or transcription of a musical work involving no more than a change of key or register; and

(b) the treatment of a work is derogatory if it amounts to distortion or mutilation of the workor is otherwise prejudicial to the honour or reputation of the author or director;
and in the following provisions of this section references to a derogatory treatment of a work shall be construed accordingly.

(3) In the case of a literary, dramatic or musical work the right is infringed by a person who—

(a) publishes commercially, performs in public or communicates to the public a derogatory treatment of the work; or

(b) issues to the public copies of a film or sound recording of, or including, a derogatory treatment of the work.

Generally speaking, attempts to market the Clean Reader in the UK are open to serious challenge from an IP point of view. And so they should be. For, as Oliver Cromwell did not (quite) say to those people being even more Puritanical than he quite felt comfortable with:

“I beseech you, in the bowels of [geez], think it possible you may be mistaken.”

The main image used for this article is from: Erasmus as censored by the Catholic church & was used under the terms detailed at the above link on the date this article was first published.