Smashwords Pulls Catalog From Profanity-Filtering Reading App Following Author Outcry

clean-reader[1]When I first wrote about Clean Reader 3 weeks ago, no one had heard of it, and no one was angry about it. I thought its automatic profanity filter was nifty on a technical level, and that some parents would love it.

Three weeks later and the app has been covered in the Washington Post and a half dozen other places, authors are up in arms, Chuck Wendig has cursed it out (no surprise there), Cory Doctorow had defended it on principle, and Smashwords had demanded that its catalog be pulled from the app's ebookstore.

And that's all within the past 4 days; who knows what tomorrow will bring.

Update: It brought this. Inktera pulled their ebookstore from the Clean Reader app, essentially killing the app (you can still sideload the ebooks).

I was planning a couple days ago to write a post on the pushback from authors, but the story quickly outgrew  the original scope, and it continues to grow. And so rather than write a post, I will instead roundup the better posts I have found so far and comment upon them.

First, there's Smashwords. Mark Coker announced Wednesday evening that he asked for ebooks distributed by SW to be pulled from Clean Reader:

After a few days of careful consideration, today I requested that all Smashwords titles be removed from Clean Reader.  Under the terms of our agreement with all retailers, retailers don't have permission to alter the words of our books.  In my judgement, by shielding readers from words, it represents a change to the book that neither Smashwords nor our authors have authorized.  Page Foundry responded immediately to my request and agreed to remove our books from the Clean Reader app in the next few hours.

I find it curious that when Kobo, Amazon, et al were pulling erotica in wholesale swathes during that panic in October 2013, Coker didn't raise similar objections to the censorship, and he didn't respond by pulling Smashwords titles from the Kobo or Kindle Stores.

Chew on that.

This uproar over this app has been covered on a number of news sites, including The Telegraph. You can also find author commentary on a number of author blogs as well as on the Absolute Write forum.

Several pieces stand out.

Jennifer Porter, for example, analyzed Clean Reader's filter and created a list of words which were filtered out. She also noted the words which the filter missed:

Interestingly, the following words are not considered profane: squirt, spurt, orgasm, goddamnit, horniness, semen, suck, condom, manhood, clit, nipple, Good Lord, God, erotic, half-assed, naked, sensual and sexual. And why are sexy and sex bad but not sexual?

She also pointed out that in some cases the filter made the story hilariously obscene:

The most egregious example of this is the fact that all words for female genitalia (vagina and pussy) are replaced with bottom. Take 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

Apparently, all sex (which of course is a bad word itself) is actually anal sex (or bottom love) as vaginas are entirely erased by the Clean Reader app. I am willing to be that this wasn’t intentional but it makes a very profound and dismissive statement about female sexuality.

In spite of the app's deficiencies and questionable intentions, Cory Doctorow defended the app out of principle:

It's a truism of free expression that if you only defend speech you agree with, you don't believe in free expression. That doesn't mean you have to defend the content of the expression: it means you have to support the right of people to say stupid, awful things. You can and should criticize the stupid, awful things. It's the distinction between the right to express a stupid idea, and the stupidity of the idea itself.

I think Clean Reader is stupid. I think parents who want to ensure that their kids don't see profanity have fucked up priorities.

I think readers should be allowed to skip my foreword and author bio. I think they should be able to search out their favorite passages and read them out of order.

I've made similar arguments when expressing support of erotica authors not being censored by Paypal, Kobo, or anyone. I'll admit, I hadn't considered making them in this case.

I also hadn't imagined that an author might take Charlie Stross's approach. He's planning to use inventive profanity in his future novels as a way of thwarting the app's filter:

While it might be possible to get my books pulled from that particular distributor, I am more inclined to deal with this idiocy by getting creative with my scatalogical vocabulary.

No more "fucks" freely interjected; instead I shall steal "unclefucker" from South Park.

No more "cunt!" as a free-standing gender-neutral insult[*]; instead it'll have to be "cuntfart!" or "pissflaps!" or "clunge!" (go look it up) ...

... But that's not going far enough.

I am pretty sure there's plenty of context in which the censorbot can be induced to fuck-up a perfectly clean paragraph beyond all recognition, simply by removing words delimited by whitespace. "Chimney-breast" for example, becomes "Chimney-chest". "The cunt line of the mainbrace" becomes "the bottom line of the mainbrace".

How far do you think I can take this?

Several other authors have raised objections, including Chuck Wendig.

As for me, I don't have an opinion. Porter has presented  a convincing argument that the filter lacks the sophistication to fully understand what it is filtering. She's shown that it is ineffective to the point of being ridiculous.

That's enough for me to object on technical grounds, but I still say that if someone wants to use a broken filter then they are welcome to it.

I feel you're welcomes to use that broken filter just as much as you are welcome to use a browser plugin to filter the adverts out of a page, or to strip an article and reformat it for Instapaper or another service, or to change the formatting in an ebook so it is easier for you to read.

As I see it, folks, all of those filters only differ from Clean Reader as a matter of degree, not kind. They all change the work of the original creator at the will of the reader, so to accept them and reject Clean Filter is to say that one can only go far, and no further.

Drawing that kind of line is an artificial distinction, IMO. Every society does that, and societies (and individuals) often draw the line in different places. Who is to say that the line drawn by the authors is the right one, and not the line drawn by those who use this app?

Not me.

Or at least that is my opinion when my ox wasn't the one which was gored. If I had skin in the game, I might feel differently.

About Nate Hoffelder (11594 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader:"I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

24 Comments on Smashwords Pulls Catalog From Profanity-Filtering Reading App Following Author Outcry

  1. The differences in Smashwords reactions is understandable: the filter is changing the content (violates Smashwords licence), banning simply removed the entire ebook (which doesn’t violate Smashwords licence).

  2. I do not see the problem. If an app turns damn to darn and so on, who is hurt? Seems an argument for people blessed with too much free time.

  3. A small thing, but that’s about all I can muster up anything to care about (that said, I come from a culture that does this regularly):

    “Cunt” is NOT gender neutral. That actually makes me pretty mad, to be honest.

    I will arse myself to go over and say this on the blog it was written.

  4. I’m with puzzled. Pulling an entire title because it’s erotica may be censorship, but at least it’s honest. But altering an author’s words then *reselling their work under their name*? Publishing houses have been sued over that kind of stunt.

    As for your comparison with an ad blocker, I would completely agree if Clean Reader was purely client-side — if it only allowed sideloading. In that case, yes, it would be exactly the same thing, and that would make it entirely acceptable. But the moment they provide a store of their own, that makes them at least equivalent to a bookstore. And a bookstore *also* doesn’t alter the books they sell. That would make them a publisher. So we circle back to the same conclusion: Clean Reader is acting like a publisher that alters the text of the books they publish without the authors’ consent.

    Remixing is fine. Reusing is fine. Putting words into people’s mouths isn’t.

    • Except Clean Reader is entirely client side (it has to be, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to offer 3 different filter settings and apply it to sideloaded ebooks). If you choose to disable the filter, you will be able to read the original story in the original words.

      • I’m confused. If Clean Reader is entirely client side, what store exactly did Smashwords pull its books from? Do they (Clear Reader) or don’t they have an e-book store of their own? Their website doesn’t say. It does say they technically don’t alter the e-book files… but that too is intellectually dishonest. It’s as if the AdBlock people claimed their Firefox plugin technically doesn’t alter websites — after all they can’t exactly reach into servers and change anything! And sure, you can disable filtering… after you bought a book through Clean Reader, making them money in the process… on the promise that they’ll offer you an altered version… under the original author’s name. Otherwise why use their reader?

        There are layers upon layers of intellectual dishonesty here. Even public domain works are usually treated with more respect.

        • The Clean Reader app being free, they make their money selling ebooks from their partner Inktera ebookstore, which is one of the few remaining generic ADEPT ebookstores in the market.

          So Smashwords probably pulled out of Inktera or told inktera to pull the books from the app.

        • The filter is client side (or was). The rest of the app, including the servers which supported it, are just your usual ebook tech.

  5. More thoughts: I license most of my writing under CC-BY-SA. Imagine you took one of my articles and posted it here in a modified form, with the license mark on it and everything… but claiming it’s the original, while in fact you completely changed the meaning. I’m not even sure that would be legal, despite the license — it may well qualify as *fraud*.

    Freedom of expression doesn’t excuse intellectual dishonesty. Doubly so if you’re making money from the latter. Remember the Flickr case from a few months ago?

  6. Even more thoughts: imagine if AdBlock charged customers for proxying websites through their own servers, except with the ads removed…

  7. Okay.
    The hysteria over this meangingless app is getting way out of hand.

    Before the first article came out, the darn thing had less than 200 downloads. Since then, the dowloads have “increased” to something between 500 and 1000, probably from panicked authors, since the number of actual user reviews (less than 30) have been swamped by over 50 hysterical claims of piracy and copyright infringement.

    Bull-oney, people.

    Copyright is about creating derivative works, about unauthorized *distribution*, and about public performances (and usually only commercial performances, at that).

    Clean Reader creates nothing, distributes nothing, and it does not do public performances of copyrighted work. It is 100-point-zero percent legal. There is a streaming video service that has been doing the same thing for five years. Legal.

    There used to be a precursor service that sold scrubbed movie DVDs.
    That one was deemed illegal. Not for the scrubbing but for *distributing* the scrubbed versions. It was replaced by a DVD player that did it on the fly to regular DVDs. Legal.
    Didn’t last long because streaming took over and because the people who are offended by “coarse and vulgar language” yet still want to watch movies (or read books) that use such language are numbered in… the hundreds.

    This isn’t even a tempest in a teapot; it is more lije a tempest in a thimble.

    All it does is highlight the ignorance of basic copyright by some and a thorough lack of understanding of fair use and reader’s rights.

    The pitifully few people who actually like the frakking app have every right to control the presentation of the text just as they have the right to select the font family, margins, hyphenation or to run the text through a TTS reader.

    They paid for that right.
    How they consume the content they bought is nobody else’s business.
    Authorial intent means beans after the money changes hands.

    Which is why the only thing Smashwords can do is pull the books en masse from the ebookstore.
    It’s an exercise in futility since the corporate publishers care about authorial intent even less than users of the app so it isn’t going to make it go away and because in a bookstore with over two million tradpub titles and a few hundred buyers the odds of Smashwords making any sales are near zero. So they threw a bone to the complainers.

    Big deal. It’s a difference that makes no difference to either side.

    Me, I could not possibly care less what some sensitive soul might feed the app, but I do find the unfounded claims of piracy and illegality annoying.
    Readers have rights, too.

    • When I write a scene with “vanilla sex” I intend it to be read that way. If I wanted to write about anal sex, I would and charge a heck of a lot more for it. Changing two words significantly changes my work.

      If my characters only engage in “vanilla” sex, which is now App changed to anal sex, then explain how the heroine got pregnant. Please do.

      This App is biased against women’s sexuality and can potentially change Science fact into B.S. We need educated individuals, not ignorant ones. And this app will keep females ignorant, not males. I have a real problem with that.

  8. Hey, Nate, since you’re the Internet Archive whiz around here, how’s about pulling the Google play page for Clean Reader from before the hysteria? Check out how many actual installs it had and maybe what the reviewers had to say.
    For…perspective…

    • There’s just the one scan from 20 March.

      Why oh why did you make me go read those reviews? Seriously, didn’t you know that kind of stupidity can be contagious? I’m afraid my inoculations might not be up to date.

      • Why do you think I actually got annoyed?
        It reflects poorly on the rest of us that we share a planet with that kind of thinking.

  9. Nate, Clean Reader and the WHSmith Kobocalypse are apple’s and oranges. Clean Reader is a simply a poor idea that’s offensive to the sensibilities of most authors. The Kobocalypse was completely different, and part of a general trend of retailers purging their stores of certain favors of taboo erotica (incest, PI, bestiality, rape, barely legal), and placing greater controls to prevent the miscategorization of titles (such as erotica accidentally ending up in the kids book section). We’d never consider pulling titles simply because a retailer makes a business decision to not carry certain categories of books. We fully support the retailer’s right to sell whatever they want.

  10. If you’ve ever paid for an ebook, you’ve got skin in this game. I’ve got no love for Clean Reader, and I think they have some profoundly disturbed priorities – hagiographies of sociopathic serial killers are wholesome family entertainment…except when the word “fuck” appears on the page – but once you get past the ick factor and the rustled auctorial jimmies, what this comes down to is “What does ‘Buy’ mean when I press the “Buy Now” button?”

    If I buy a paper book, I can take it home and highlight it, rip out pages, scribble in the margins, or even give the book to somebody else and ask them to take a Sharpie to every instance of the word fuck, and nobody can do a thing about it because I own that copy of that book and I can do whatever the fuck I want with it.

    If I check a paper book out of the local library, I can’t do any of those things to it because I don’t own the book – the library has granted me a restricted license to the content in it. (The library, of course, is within its rights to highlight, strike out, write in, and otherwise “deface” the book – I recall my local library actually doing this with some photography books on their shelves some years ago as a result of changes in the Criminal Code.)

    If I buy a book, I should damn well have the right to do whatever stupid shit I want with it, whether it be doodling on the inside of the cover or paying somebody to bowdlerize the contents on my behalf, and the existence of things like Clean Reader is a pretty fucking small price to pay for that right of ownership.

    • Yes, if you buy a book you can do whatever you like to *your own copy*. But that assumes the copy you got in the first place was reflecting the author’s intent. If Clean Reader itself was sold for money and *only* allowed sideloading, it would be *perfectly fine*. It doesn’t do that. It sells you *the books themselves*, that with the original author’s name still on the cover, and you read them *already* bowdlerized.

      Look at any bowdlerized (or abridged, or annotated) edition of a book sold in bookstores. You’ll see the cover *mentions* it’s not the original, and who wrote this edition. And unless the book is public domain, that’s done with the author’s knowledge, at least. But imagine you’re an author selling your books through Inktera, thinking the readers get *your version*… and instead they get *something else*.

      No. Just no.

      • The copy you buy is *not* modified.
        That is why it is legal where the first clean-DVD system wasn’t.
        It only filters on the fly so no derivative work is created.

        It is no different, from a technical standpoint, to choosing a large font size with hyphenation: it examines the text as it renders the page and then hyphenates it (or bowdlerizes it) as determined by its algorithms.

        No derivative, no distribution, no public performance = fair use.

      • Except that it doesn’t actually appear to work that way – it looks like all the bowdlerizing is done in the app, probably on your local copy. There’s certainly nothing on Inktera’s Web site indicating their books are pre-scrubbed, and a quick browse of their catalogue showed titles categorized under “Erotica” (see, for example, here – sadly they don’t appear to have a preview option.) As far as I can tell Inktera is just a generic vendor of AdobePub books.

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