The Clean Reader

In response to the backlash over The Clean Reader app, the team behind it issued a statement that changes to the app are planned and an update will be released. This was in response to feedback from authors and users, but is unlikely to address my problem with it.

An Idaho couple, Jared and Kirsten Maughan developed The Clean Reader, which replaces certain words with “less offensive” alternatives. The app replaced any words found in its database with the listed alternatives. It isn’t sensitive enough to look at context so a book on breeding dogs would turn every instance of “bitch” into “witch” even though the former was being used correctly in context and not as a derogatory term.

If you buy a book, you can deface it by writing notes in the margins or taking a black marker to redact words you don’t like, but if you then allow someone else to borrow your book, they can easily see that you’ve altered the text and it is no longer how the author intended it. Similarly when TV programmes broadcast during the day or early evening when children might be watching (or might simply be present in the room when an adult is watching) bleep out the swear words, it’s understood what the bleep means, but the bleep is still there and the speaker’s intention is still clear.

With the Clean Reader app, it’s not clear that a borrower would be aware that the original text has been defaced. When you buy an eBook, you are not actually buying the book but a licence to read a copy of that book. Therefore an app like The Clean Reader, is potentially illegal (in England authors have the right of integrity and of false attribution; in the US there is no legal protection for moral rights) because you do not have the right to alter the text you have bought a licence to read.

This is particularly important in poetry. Whatever you think of the merits of the poem, the words within will have been chosen not just for meaning but also for rhythm and sound. Any alteration could not just alter the sense of the poem but also the rhythm and sound patterns. The alteration could destroy the original poem.

There lies my problem with the Clean Reader app. If an individual reader decides to deface their own purchased copy of a book, they still have to have read the original text in order to decide which words to black out. So the author’s original intention and original text is still present. With Clean Reader a third party is cleaning the text before the reader has actually read it. It’s not clear to the reader who uses Clean Reader before reading the text what the author’s intention was. This is why I object to it.

What do you think?


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