May 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

“Clean Reader” App Strips Ebooks of Profanity

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Rainbow Rowell’s novel “Eleanor and Park,” a 2014 Printz Honor book, viewed through the “Clean Reader” app.

A newly released app promises to let readers “read books, not profanity,” by blocking out offensive words. Clean Reader, available for iOS and Android devices, is an ebook/ereading platform that can cover up profanity, references to anatomical features or deities or other language deemed offensive from titles available through an online book store.

Clean Reader users can choose how they’d like their reading material to be altered. The filter, represented by a small broom, can be set to “off,” “clean,” “cleaner,” or “squeaky clean.”  Some are questioning whether this compromises the integrity of authors’ works.

According the FAQ on the app’s website, Clean Reader’s creators, Jared and Kirsten Maughan, wanted to address an issue their then fourth-grade daughter faced when looking for books to read. “One day our oldest child came home from school, and she was a little sad.  We asked her what was wrong, and she said she had been reading a book during library time and it had a few swear words in it,” says Jared Maughan. “She really liked the book but not the swear words. We told her that there was probably an app for this type of thing.”

However, the couple discovered that there was no electronic product designed to remove or filter offensive language. After consulting with a lawyer who told them that republishing books with altered or removed words would violate authors’ copyrights, according to the Washington Post, the Maughans turned to the Chicago firm Page Foundry, which offers a generic ereader platform that can be customized based on its client’s needs.

Page Foundry already has relationships with publishers who provide licensing for the titles in its online book store. While the app is free, the Maughans earn a small commission from books purchased through the app, according to the Washington Post.

While designing the app, the Maughans requested that the Clean Reader platform have a customized highlighting feature that identifies offensive language and places an opaque bubble over the text. Users can tap on a dot for a substitute word to assist with context and readability.

Technically, the text isn’t republished with edits. Rather, “the app purvey[s] the same book, but [provides] the option to cover up all of the obscenities,” as a Huffington Post article reports.

“This isn’t like Clean Flicks,” Maughan adds, referring to a company that faced legal proceedings after releasing edited versions of films. Indeed, publishers under Page Foundry’s umbrella sought reassurance that the original texts would not be edited. Maughan confirmed that they would not, adding that there are a lot of “snap judgments” about the app.

An evolving filter

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‘Clean Reader’ suggests an alternate word in ‘Eleanor and Park.’

Keeping up with offensive language requires the filter to evolve, Maughan says. “We keep finding new spellings…and authors using different spaces, so we have to keep putting in different words and arrangements of words, different endings, slang terms and slang ways of using them,” he says. “It’s an ever-growing list.”  Currently, more than 100 words and phrases are subject to filtering.

Maughan adds he was “shocked at the amount of publicity” that Clean Reader has gotten from the media.  While he knew the app could be “somewhat controversial,” he maintains that there is a “segment of the population who just don’t care to read the f-word.”

A Book Riot article reflects on Clean Reader and how it may have impacted the author’s early reading years: “I can’t forget the way it felt when a book I was loving let me down by throwing in something that offended me…. I know how much easier my life as a reader would’ve been if books had ratings or if I’d had access to the Clean Reader app.”

While Clean Reader user reviews are generally positive, a Guardian article highlights this comment: “Edits inappropriately, doesn’t understand context. [Removes] words that have multiple uses and aren’t necessarily curse words, destroying context in written works.”

Compromising authors’ integrity?

This comment touches on concerns that Clean Reader impinges on authors’ original intent and right to free speech. Joan Bertin, director of the National Coalition against Censorship, doesn’t view the app’s filtering program as a form of censorship per se. “Artists and authors have ‘moral rights’ in some parts of the world, but not in the United States, where copyright law defines their rights,” she says.   However, Bertin believes that Clean Reader “distorts the integrity of the author’s vision and work.”

Bertin adds that Clean Reader’s influence could extend beyond the app. For example, if a parent requests that their school district implement Clean Reader or a similar product, a “real censorship issue” could arise.  She points out that other tools that help provide information to individuals about media content, such as movie, music, and book rating systems, have “sometimes been used inappropriately by government officials to restrict minors’ access to materials they’re legally entitled to,” as opposed to being cited in discussions of free choice and access.

Amy Wilde, a middle school librarian in Central Oregon, thinks that Clean Reader isn’t a good way to address parent’s potential concerns about an assigned title. “If the parent was having an issue [with a book a student wanted to read], I think I would rather have that student read a different book with the same theme than have them change the language of what they are reading,” she says.

“We can’t put [kids] in a padded cell,” adds Bertin. “People use profanity; it’s a part of everyday conversation. [Parents should] be helping [their] kids negotiate the contemporary world, which they can’t do if they are isolated.”

Maughan agrees that kids can’t be shielded entirely. “I’m not naïve to the fact that kids are hearing things on the playground or in the hallways at school,” he says. “That doesn’t mean it needs to come into the home environment.”

He adds that while some authors may not be happy to have their work filtered, readers should not be concerned. “They’ve paid good money for the book,” Maughan wrote in a recent blog post on the Clean Reader site. “They can consume it how they want.”

April Witteveen is a community and teen services librarian with Deschutes Public Library in Central Oregon. She is the upcoming chair of the Printz 2016 Committee and has served on the YALSA Board.

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  1. When my son was in 7th grade he had an extended hospital stay. To keep him busy I got a gaming system and a few games that I would never have let him play at home. When I cringed at some swear words on the game he said, “Mom, I hear worse than this everyday at school and I still have chosen not to swear.” This is the moment I knew I was doing a good job and could start trusting my child a lot more. I feel a book with profanity can lead to teaching moments and discussion and doesn’t have to be something that is avoided. Just because they read it or hear it, doesn’t mean they are repeating it.

    • Thank you, Jana, for taking the words right out of my mouth. Teaching moments! And if a kid doesn’t like the language than choose another book. Don’t “pay good money” (as Maughan states) towards a book you can’t read due to what you deem as offensive language. And just reading Rainbow Rowell’s work pictured in the article with the edits is a bit horrifying as that particular scene needs the swearing as it is part of who that side character is and sets the tone for the bullying and ignorance taking place. The rest of the books is very low in swear words. Context, people!!! I am a high school librarian and cringe every time a parent expresses outrage that their kid is reading John Green or Rainbow Rowell and not a “wholesome classic like Lord of the Flies or Catcher in the Rye”. Its clear every time I hear that comment that this parent either never read those “wholesome” classics or completely incorrectly remembers them. So thank you for clearly being a parent who get teachable moments and having honest, interesting discussions with your child. From all teachers and librarians every where, thank you!

  2. Patricia Logan says:

    How is this not copyright infringement? Unless readers are reading books which are not copyrighted (and if there are, I’d like to know where those are and who the publishers are), how is this app even legal? Perhaps these creators need to speak with the US Copyright office before they get sued. As an author, I am outraged and I hope they do as quickly and as harshly as possible.

    In addition to this concern, I must wonder where the parents are. The whole idea of censoring free speech is practiced in my household. My children were taught (by their parents no less) that it is not acceptable to curse at home.

    Changing an author’s text in a copyrighted document is illegal, no matter how you slice it. Needless to say, I won’t be using this app.

  3. I love this! Parents who choose to regulate language at home are brilliant. We don’t allow our three year olds to vote, drive, or consume alcohol. We have age limits for different activities from 13, 16, 18, and 21. Swearing and foul language are not the sign of a creative, brilliant mind, but rather the sign of someone without the creativity to come up with something better. Let’s reach for the best and teach our children to do so also. This app is an example of someone using their creative talents for the greater good.

    • All I can say is if you don’t like the book content, don’t read it in the first place. If you really want to read it, then read it as intended or miss out on many layers of meaning and some really great teachable moments with your kids.

  4. Lisa Nocita says:

    My first reaction is to be a little bit horrified. Any attempt to “cover up profanity, references to anatomical features or deities or other language deemed offensive” seems like an open invitation to impose on the free market of ideas and words. Specifically because language is so subjective. What may be offensive to one person may not be offensive to another. This is a slippery slope. And, as others have pointed out, context means everything. There are certainly plenty of examples of gratuitous profanity just as there are gratuitous violence and sex. Books with these elements are not books of distinguished literary quality in the first place. Authors, film makers, and tv producers throw it in just to attract viewers even when it is not germane nor necessary. It sells. Librarians in school libraries are tasked to follow selection guidelines that promote quality writing and celebrate diversity. As a parent, it seems naive to believe that our children walk through life in a cocooned little bubble where they will never encounter profanity or ideas contrary to their own beliefs. And, in my experience, I have encountered parents who are quick to condone a bad word in a book but simultaneously allow their child free reign with their tv, movie, and video game choices. I’m often astounded by what my middle school students report watching. However, for me the bottom line is this: if the publishers and authors don’t have a beef with it as censorship, then I suppose a parent is within their right to sanitize away…. I wish there was an app for intolerance and close-mindedness! Or how about one for common sense?!

  5. Profanity is not the words that are used, but what the words are saying.

    It is not any one word on its own. It is the context with which they are used that have the most impact. I’m less concerned with the swearing in novels than I am with the scene in which the “profanity” is being used. What is going on in the scene that the characters are swearing? Is it school-yard bullying? Is it a graphic sex scene? Is it a group of baddies getting into an epic battle with their biggest enemy? If your eyes are sensitive to an occasional cuss word, how are you able to handle what’s happening in the scene in which they’re being used? How are your eyes not burning after a detailed rape scene, but yet they’ve all but fallen into a heap of ashes at the sight of “damn”? That’s the part that confuses me most.

    I also fear that parents will use it as a babysitter, thinking this app will cut out all that their children’s innocent little eyes can’t yet handle. Nothing, and I repeat, nothing, can beat a parent’s eyes. Use these moments to open up a dialog. It means you’ve been paying attention to your child to know that something’s amiss, which is going to be far more impactful to the child than saying, well, let’s just push a button to make it all go away. (this also give the kids a false reality. I’m sorry, but I can’t just push a mute button on my five-year-old, no matter how much I may need him to be quiet while I get important details while on a phone call) No. Open your mouth. Have a dialog. Explain what the blurbs on the backs of books are for and how to use them to their advantage. Teach them how to make decisions for themselves. Ask them questions. (I’ve used the following questions on a couple of my nieces when their mom was at a complete loss on where to even start. But she tried. She gave her daughters the power to put the book down if they wanted to. No-one was making them read it. But she didn’t know how else to address what was going on in the book, and why it was bothersome to the girls.)

    “How does this language make you feel?”
    “Why do you suppose the author chose those words to convey their message?”
    “What other words could the author have used their place?”
    “How would that change the author’s meaning?”
    “How would it change the character for them to say something else?”
    “Do you see connection between this language and the world you walk around in?”

    Do I think the idea of the app is yes? Let me make myself clear: Yes. I like the IDEA of the app. We all have the right to choose what our and our children’s eyes see within our own homes. Do I think there are a lot of flaws with this app? Yes. Who determines which words are offensive to me? I do. Not the app. But the way it’s set up, the app is the authority on what is and isn’t offensive, and how offensive a particular word is.


    Don’t teach children to fear words, or be ashamed of them, or hate them. There’s already enough fear, shame and hate going on in this world, let’s not make words and communication another enemy. When I was going through junior and senior high school, words were my best friend. They were my sanctuary. My escape. I ‘m still trying to pare down the 4,000 word rant that wouldn’t let me sleep at 2am into something a little more respectable because there are a lot of reasons I’m against this app – more than I have in favor of it, actually, even if I do like the idea behind it, and I feel the need to express all of my concerns with the app. Where do limits get drawn? At what point does the story lose all of its original intent – and integrity – and become something else? Why do I have to opt out when I never even wanted in in the first place? Why are you purchasing books you know you’re not going to like? And so much more…

  6. I’m pretty sure the legality of this is along the same lines as the Clear play DVD player and the old TV Guardian that you could get as an add on to your VCR. Takes a well done piece of work and makes it family friendly. I’m certain that not too many people will lose sleep at night with the extra money they make off the families who would have never purchased their book if this app were not available. It certainly opens up a world of possibilities for me and my family. Trust me this app isn’t just for kids, I not only prefer cleaner books for my kids but for myself as well.