This subject came up on Twitter this morning. I tweeted about it a bit myself, but Twitter is not a great place for talking about complex subjects.
There are some questions about whether the Clean Reader app works as it says it does. For the sake of discussion, I will assume that it does what it claims: take an uncensored ebook that the user legally owns and display that ebook to the user with the obscenities censored out. The censorship settings are a changeable toggle: the user can opt to uncensor the ebook at any time. The app doesn't change the ebook, nor does it sell users altered ebooks. It has the option to alter the display of purchased copies.
I have no personal use for this product. I do not think obscenities are a wonderful thing that enriches language, but I don't find them all that offensive, either. I'd rather read the book the author wrote than a bowlderized version.
However, I have great sympathy for those who do find obscenities and profanities offensive. I rarely use them in my own writing in part because of this. If someone chooses to buy a book and then black out all the bad words in their personal, legally-owned copy, that seems perfectly reasonable to me. If they want to buy an app to do the same thing for them automatically: fine. I may find this a bit silly, and I don't want to read their copy, but it has no effect on me. The copyright holder still gets paid. The app is not charging for a derivative work. It's all good. I feel like this falls, correctly, under "fair use".
But there are some interesting hypothetical cases around the same concept. For example:
* An app that censors based on content, removing homosexual characters or minorities, altering religions, etc.: I would not think well of anyone who used such an app, but if it's only for their personal legally-owned copy, I'd still call it fair use. Only a twit would use it. But twits have rights too.
* A school board that orders all the school library books censored via app: This school board needs to be recalled. But the point of failure is the school board, and not the existence of the app. I am not sure I'd go so far as to say "libraries should not be allowed to lend copies of bowlderized books", but I wouldn't be upset if a law prohibited libraries from censoring their legally-owned copies of books, either. Lending out a book you've altered strikes me as different in a meaningful way from altering one you only intend to read yourself.
* Similarly, I think that selling censored books is also on different legal ground: that even if you own a copy of a book, you are not necessarily allowed to alter it any way that you like and re-sell your copy. (I think this gets into "derivative works".) But I'm not sure of the legal grounds here. Legal or not, it's ethically dubious at best.
That's all I can think of for now. What do you think of this issue?