Story Surgeon: An App For Copyright Infringement

Here at Writer Beware, we love the weird stuff–the nutty, fring-y, even, dare I say, totally freaking insane things that are always cropping up at the boundaries of the publishing world, often spawned by people who haven’t really taken the time to think things through.

Or maybe they’re just idiots. Hard to tell sometimes.

So…playing now on Kickstarter, a project called Story Surgeon (I’ve embedded a screenshot at the bottom of this post to immortalize the concept). Created by aspiring author Ryan Hancock, Story Surgeon is:

An eBook notation app that saves your personal edits as a separate file, and can be shared with anyone who owns the original eBook.

In other words, Story Surgeon is an app that enables anyone to alter a published book in any way they like, and spread the alterations around at will.

Although it will be a complicated app to develop, the idea is simple. Buy an eBook in ePub format and download it to your iPad. Download the Story Surgeon app. (It will be free on release day and probably many days thereafter.) Then you can use the app to read the original eBook (booooring) or make your own person [sic] changes to the text. (OH YEAH!)

Use the “find and replace” tool to substitute bad words, cut out whole portions of the book you thought were lame, or completely rewrite the novel with you as the main character.

Once your filter is perfect, you have the option to upload it into Drop Box and post your link on the Story Surgeon General Blog. (As we grow we’ll get our own servers and streamline the sharing process.)

The filter is kept separate from the eBook and no copyrights will be infringed upon. Anyone who uses your link and downloads the free filter will have to have purchased the original eBook. Filters will always be free.

As an author, I’m so very relieved to know that even if random people use an app to create altered versions of my books and post links to them on the Internet, my copyright won’t be infringed upon. I’m also thrilled to know that there’s a new promotional tool at my fingertips:

For authors, making fun filters of your already published book is a great way to generate buzz and get more people purchasing the eBook.

As yet, Story Surgeon exists only in Ryan Hancock’s imagination–which is why he’s trying to raise $15,000 on Kickstarter, offering backer rewards that are, if possible, even loonier than the app itself. For instance, if you donate $10, you can “submit the titles of TWO books that you would like to seen [sic] “PG-ified”—OR—If you’re not interested in having books cleaned up, you may instead submit a filter idea. (Such as Hunger Games rewritten with Harry Potter characters, etc.)”

Or, for big spenders who are willing to cough up $200, “the app creator will completely rewrite a book of your choice (up to 600 pages), making major changes such as genre switches, adding you as a completely new main character, or adding your boss as the villain’s simpering sidekick. You will also receive a signed copy of his YA novel when it is published.”

Hancock explains the genesis of his misguided idea on his blog (apparently it’s all Patrick Rothfuss’s fault). He has also issued a press release, in which he reiterates his woefully inaccurate view of what constitutes copyright infringement, launched a Facebook page, and is promoting his project on Twitter (which is how I heard about it, thanks to a tip from a literary agent. Moral of story: if you’re planning on promoting copyright infringement, don’t follow publishing people).

Story Surgeon’s Kickstarter has been live for about a week, and as of this writing has raised $170.

ADDENDUM: I really didn’t expect this post to generate so much discussion (see below for links to some of it, and see also the comments section). I’ll admit that when I wrote it, I was only peripherally aware of apps and software for re-editing/re-mixing video. If I’d been more familiar with these, I might not have been quite so hard on Mr. Hancock’s concept.

A number of responses to this post have argued that Mr. Hancock’s app isn’t infringing, since all it does is allow readers to create a series of edits for private use. However, that doesn’t diminish my concern about what people may do with those altered versions. Whatever Mr. Hancock’s intentions for his app, he can’t control the actions of his users–and while it may not be infringement for people to privately create filters to change the books they read and how they read them, it _is_ infringement if they then find a way to circulate those altered versions.

I’m going to quote here from one of the comments on this post, because I think it states the problem very precisely:

“But there’s a further wrinkle, and this is where I suspect matters become more dangerous. The kinds of substitutional texts Story Surgeon will generate strike me as scarily similar to texts that have been labeled as plagiarism by both fannish and professional observers. Let me give you three names: Cassie Claire (Harry Potter fanfic and a Pamela Dean novel); Kaavya Viswanathan (teen author who sold a novel to Little, Brown that was pulled shortly after its release); and Cassie Edwards (a now-notorious name among pro romance authors).

Which invokes a Catch-22 situation. If a Story Surgeon alt-text is circulated with the original author’s byline, that byline misrepresents the alt-text as the work of the original author, which is arguably fraud. But if that same text is circulated with the byline of the alt-text creator, I think the original author can call that plagiarism. And that’s what they called a “no-win scenario” in the Star Trek movies….”

So to my mind, even if Mr. Hancock’s app and the filters it generates are legal and non-infringing, they present major potential for infringing use.

EDITED TO ADD: Thanks to one of the comments on this post, an interesting article on how–maybe–pastiche-creating software might skirt copyright laws.

EDITED AGAIN TO ADD: This post has led to several additional posts about Story Surgeon. Chris Meadows points out its similarities to programmed re-editing software, and suggests that Story Surgeon may constitute fair use. “Even if making fan edits of books was illegal, template or not, the app would seem to have plenty of non-infringing uses.” Nate Hoffelder argues flatly that I’m wrong, and that Story Surgeon “is not copyright infringement any more than taking a pair of scissors to a paper book and then explaining online how to duplicate your efforts.” Mick Rooney delves into the moral ambiguities, questioning whether Ryan Hancock has missed a crucial point: “We buy what we like, what we identify with—not what we want to peer over the garden wall at, tease ourselves with, and then decide how we can best sanitise it for the joy and pleasure of others.”

EDITED YET AGAIN TO ADD: Here is Ryan Hancock’s response to my blog post. “Despite the heated opposition, I believe this app to be legal and what’s more, to be of benefit to authors and families in particular.”


  1. Okay, this post is a tad old now (especially given how the Kickstarter campaign failed miserably without reaching even a tiny fraction of its intended total), but I may as well mention it anyway.

    This app is basically ROM hacking/game modding for literature/books. That field works much the same way too, you release your work as a difference file and use some sort of tool to patch it to the original work.

    Just something to think about.

  2. Someone commented on the Story Surgeon Facebook page that my proposed app would be akin to vandalizing a sculpture or painting. Today, Netted showcased an app that allows you to do just that.
    I've officially merged my company with Puremedia, who will be focusing more on the removal of specific content rather than adding personal edits. I think it's clear that this is the way technology is moving and with Clearplay's court ruling ( for better or worse) this type of thing isn't going away.

  3. I don't care how they candy coat it. If they take my creative output and alter it in any way without my explicit permission, it is plagiarism. If you don't like what an author has to say, you have a choice: move on to another book and/or author with whom you agree.

    Underlying problem: the current trend to only incorporate things into your life that conform to your narrow world view. How is anyone going to learn anything new if they shut out the rest of the world's voices?

  4. Ryan authors write with a specific audience or group of audiences in mind. If an author writes a book that contains sex, violence, and/or profanity, they do it knowing full well that some readers will refuse to read the book. They (and their publishers) are willing to lose those readers from the start. Not to mention that the pitch for your app encourages readers to rewrite the story just because they think they can do it better. If those readers could really write that well, they'd have the skill to write whole new books of their very own. Obviously you assume they can't write that well. I also don't buy the argument that it's OK to violate authors' moral rights because other people are already doing that.

  5. Michael, I don't disagree that they have moral rights, I simply think they are being violated by some degree or another every day, anyway. I don't agree that there is a vast difference between crossing out words and letting an app do it. I believe people have varying degrees of passion with which they'd like to protect the integrity of their work. Some (like me) think it would accomplish more creative and moral good to create a structure where THOSE THAT ALLOW their moral rights to be infringe upon in a little more organized manner, can see their books continue to be part of the creative process and touch people in ways they wouldn't otherwise. Obviously you don't agree with my rationalization to "violate" author's moral rights. I didn't expect to convince everybody. And if you think it's been "convenient" to sink my time, money, and reputation into this endeavor for which I having nothing to gain financially, you really don't understand morality at all.

  6. Sorry, I wrote my last post before I read your blog post, in which you do address the moral rights of authors, sort of. As I understand what you are saying, you disagree that authors have moral rights because there's a long American tradition of disrespecting them, they are vague, and some modern authors don't believe in them. I can tell you that the core of moral rights for authors as written in the Berne Convention is not vague and most authors believe in it. There is a vast difference between crossing out a word in a printed book and making an app that propagates such immorality electronically. Basically, you think that you can violate a moral right as long as you can come up with a rationalization to do so. Similar arguments could be made in favor of many of the things you consider immoral. Since it's all moot now anyway, I won't belabor the point, but all morality can ultimately be defeated by appealing to convenience, and that's what you're doing here.

  7. Ryan, what you haven't addressed is the morality of changing an author's text, violating his or her moral right to determine the final text of the work without alteration, distortion, or mutilation. You seem to be a moral person, yet you do not acknowledge this fundamental right of authors. It does appear that what you intended might be legal, but it is certainly immoral, and it surprises me that, as a practicing Mormon, you have no problem with this aspect of the proposed project.

  8. Oh, I also forgot to mention, that Passive Voice article talks about Cleanflicks and how it was outlawed, but Clearplay is much more similar to my project and that company was ruled legal. Some have pointed out that Clearplay only skips content and does not add it. But the mp3 audio tracks do add, and those are fine. If there are other problems which I don't see (which is likely) I'll get them worked out with the lawyer before we go live.
    And this is going to happen. Whether or not it is funded by kickstarter. (Assuming the lawyers don't think I'm going to get the pants sued off me.)

  9. Victoria, sorry it took so long. My post is ready and I hope I addressed all of the concerns. I go off on several tangents, but I don't know how else to illustrate my point if not with specific examples. Here it is:

    Mick, in answer to your questions: The only progress on the app has been preliminary research into whether the app would be possible and how much time/effort it would cost to make. (Apparently it's $15K worth.)
    I'm in contact with two IP lawyers and a team of programmers who are excited about the app's potential.
    (They are currently researching the DRM details and will get back to me.)

    I realize that no matter what precautions we take, there will probably be someone who finds a way to use the app to break the law. The only thing I can say (and I have said it several times) is that you wouldn't outlaw CD burners because they can be used to pirate. I believe the fact that we make no money off the filters and possibly none off the app itself, will be my best protection when someone decides to disobey our terms of service. Who knows, it may be no protection at all. I guess that's why I'm talking to lawyers.

    If I've missed anything else, don't expect another blog post. I'm exhausted and need to start paying attention to my family again.

    I appreciate all the interest and great insight I've gained over the last few days. Thanks again, Victoria for taking this on and helping me understand that this isn't an idea to be taken lightly or without much preparation.

  10. As a professional editor and writer, I will express the opinion that the average amateur doesn't have a clue how to edit and that their edits are unlikely to benefit the works. Which works have presumably have already had the attentions of a professional writer and editor, and possibly comments from a writer's critique group and/or a literary agent as well. As a reader, I like variety in books, and I don't demand that writers create to suit my personal needs. There are far too many excellent books out there for me to have the time to read them already (there are hundreds in my to-read pile). If I don't like a book, I recycle it and move on. If I don't like an author's work (even if I am offended by it), I just quit reading it. This whole app, if ever used, would be just an egocentric exercise on the part of readers.

  11. You've launched an interesting debate Victoria. I predict failure for Story Surgeon whether it's copyright infringement or not. A great book isn't going to be made better with amateur editing. If a book isn't great to start with, why wouldn't a person just read an author they like better? If I can use a music video as an example, there are lots of derivative videos of Psy's "Gangnam Style", but the original is still the best. As long as it's clear that a work is a derivative, it promotes the original and anyone using the filter needs to buy the original. It sounds like the project is going to fail to launch. Even if it does take off, I expect readers will tire of reading the same book twice with small changes. Thanks again for the article.

  12. … and if Cory Doctorow really believes Story Surgeon doesn't infringe copyright (but maybe use of it) then time for him to throw a few thousand dollars at it. In the last week the SS Kickstarter project has amassed just $25 despite all the publicity. That's a total of $205 out of $15,000 nearing THE HALFWAY MARK.

  13. While I appreciate Ryan's responses here and over on TIPM, I think there is still a great deal he is missing. I look forward to his Monday post and I hope it carefully and thoroughly addresses the points made, rather than drift into generalised and euphemistic explanations when Ryan first replied on his blog to media attention.

    I get what is driving me to create this app – that's not in question, regardless if people want to sanitise/alter the received output of an author.

    The issues are:

    1. Why does HE believe it won't infringe copyright and the moral rights of an author?

    2. What advice and who has he sought consult off on this app?

    3. Exactly how developed as an app is Story Surgeon, or is it still at an idea stage? – I'm still, after all this, not clear on that.

    4. While I'm no techno guru, has Ryan examined DRM and how the app will deal with this? Is this just intended for DRM-free books?

    5. I get it that actual books are not being shared, but saying that no infringing copyright material will appear on the Story Surgeon blog to host download of shared filters DOES NOT and WILL NOT free him or the company he uses to facilitate Story Surgeon from potential legal action at a later stage.

    I go back to Victoria original point, and the points I have also made, that while the commercial concept might be legal – broadly – this app development has not been fully thought through.

  14. Victoria, I had missed Passive Guy's article, so thanks for the link. I've been considering this, and will write a post on Monday, detailing the moral implications of Story Surgeon.

  15. I have seen my books for sale on what I assume are "pirate" sites charging more than I do. But I am the teensiest of small potatoes and have decided to consider it flattering. Don't ask me how or why such sites operate. There is this thing about electronic files some people ignore. This stuff is in the ether, guys. "ETHERNET"? I casually use the word divorce in an email to my daughter and her reply email has five ads for divorce attorneys in the right hand margin. I am not worried about NSA snooping since lawyer's apparently buy programs to monitor Miss Apple Pie's every word. Also, Cassie Edwards is still on store shelves. People probably enjoy her stories as long as they don't notice they read parts of it elsewhere.

  16. Anonymous 1/25: there are a lot of issues here, but FREE SPEECH isn't one of them. I also think you should brush up on your understanding of fair use.

    Ryan, I find it interesting how you've so far declined to address Michael Capobianco's point about authors' moral rights (the same point is made by Passive Guy–an IP lawyer–in his blog post about your app) as well as my points about the infringing uses that users of your app could, and likely would, make of the altered texts they create.

    As I've noted above, I'm now inclined to agree with those who feel that your app isn't infringing in and of itself. But there are infringing uses to which it could be put–and that, I think, is a moral question. Since you've based much of your argument in support of the app on moral issues, I'm surprised you won't address it.

  17. I don't know. Looking at the actual campaign on Kickstarter, I can't help feeling that Ryan is having us all on. If so, I applaud him for being hilarious in a slightly off-putting sort of way.

  18. Anon at 1:29am, I love the idea of a "living book".
    Francis, I read a LOT, and maybe I'm just a story snob but the books I literally cannot put down are very few and far between. When I find one of those, I want to share it with everybody! (And since most of the people I know would not read it due to bad words or mature scenes, I have to buff out the rough patches) My love of great books prevents me from just "moving on."
    Kerry, I thought about the porn problem, too. Although I can't stop people from putting mature content into filters, I can prevent them from sharing those files on the official Story Surgeon website. If I find that an underground Story Surgeon porn sharing site is cropping up, I'll work out way to prevent the app from saving the filter anywhere but the Story Surgeon Filter page. That way we could also flag and remove fan fiction of authors who have denied their fans the right to write.
    Ms. Strauss, you might be interested to know that a Canadian Law Graduate has contacted me and has started a full-blown copyright case study based on the difference between US and Canadian copyright law and plans to highlight the issues I would face in the Canadian context.
    Looks like your article is already changing the world. 🙂

  19. The creator of this app seems to be arguing that people will use this app mainly for creating "family friendly" versions of books or just light-hearted fun such as making yourself the main character. But what happens when people start turning books into porn? Because you know that will happen–and probably quickly. That would REALLY get authors up in arms, even if they are okay with the others.

    And I wonder if this would fall under fanfic (which seems to be protected as long as it's not being sold)? As long as the "new" versions aren't making money, is that technically copyright infringement? (Honest question, I don't know.)


  20. If you haven't been hired to edit the book, and there are major aspects of it you don't like, why not just get rid of the original book–without keeping a copy–and move on to other books and authors that you like more? Or if you must express your opinion, why not just post a critical review on Amazon and again, move on to more appealing books? Why insist on some kind of co-authorship without the author's permission?

  21. For the Anon who said that if his book were used, the app manufacturer would find himself on the end of a "big fat lawsuit."

    Empty words. Anyone can sue. But whether your lawsuit would be "big" and "fat" is for the jury to decide.

    You can easily lose, and end up with a big fat hole in your bank account.

    Lawyers cost money, you know. They don't sue for free. They only take cases "on contingency" if the target has deep pockets AND if you have a strong case.

    Copyright cases generally do NOT meet those standards, so you'll have to pay your lawyer ahead of time, regardless of whether you win or lose.

  22. This app sounds no different than someone writing notes in the margins of a book they ALREADY OWN.

    Can I write in a book I already own? YES!

    Can I give that book, with notes in it, to others? YES!

    Can I state my comments on a book with people who WANT to hear my comments? YES!

    Is this app censorship? NO, because it does not prevent the author from continuing to sell his book as he wrote it.

    Can I ask someone to examine a book THAT I BOUGHT and ask them to remove any offending passages before I look at it? YES — and that's not censorship, that's using MY property — the copy of that book — as I see fit.

    Why would I want to read a book I have "so much" trouble with (as one poster said)? Because I might not have "so much" trouble with a book, just a bit.

    As for copyright granting authors "control" over their work — Yes and NO. Copyright only grants authors LIMITED control over their work. Fair Use allows readers to use copyrighted work in ways the author might not approve — and even contrary to what might be written in the front matter of a book.

    Authors are always using — and making money from — others' intellectual property. They mention trademarks in their books. They describe architectural designs. Yet they don't pay royalties to Burger King just for mentioning the company in a novel.

    This app is pro-FREE SPEECH, as it allows the world to discuss books on the books themselves, creating a discussion within the book, rather than just passively receiving it.

    These authors are pro-CENSORSHIP. They want to restrict comment on their books, turning them into dead artifacts rather than living books.

  23. PS USA does recognise copyright of artists outside USA – without needing to register. It's just that to sue someone's ass you need to access the US system (which is an ass), unless you can find a legal service address for that ass in your own country. I prefer the free publicity route myself.

  24. In Australia the purpose of copyright is to also protect the artists' moral rights, repuation and honour. [We spell honour with 'our' in Australia].

    Bastardising copy and distributing it would contravene in many ways.

    Any examples out there are probably cases where the rights holder didn't bother to sue.

    But then, right v wrong in the USA is often quite different to what the rest of the world see.

  25. Whether or not Story Surgeon is a violation of copyright, it certainly is a violation of the author's moral rights as expressed in the Berne Convention, which are not recognized the US but are part of the law in many countries.

    The Berne Convention says:

    "Independent of the author's economic rights, and even after the transfer of the said rights, the author shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to the said work, which would be prejudicial to the author's honor or reputation."

  26. It's stuff like this proposed app wants to do that is why the copyright page in the front matter of just about every book published has verbiage prohibiting it. For example:

    "Personal use rights only. No part of this publication may be sold, copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, mechanical or digital, including photocopying, and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system."

    That's from the front matter of a published book.

    It's my opinion that Mr. Hancock's proposed app does infringe on copyright. It would also censor published work by removing words the readers see as offensive that is tacky on both fronts.

    In the end we can debate all we want in the comment sections of blogs, but it will up to a court to decide. Mr. Hancock better start a second Kickstarter campaign for his legal fund, because he will need it.

    I would be very surprised if his app and its users aren't eventually sued.

    It begs the question; did Mr. Hancock run this by an IP/copyright attorney? Is that anywhere in his business plan for this app? I would be surprised a real lawyer would sign off on this app.

    There are folks out there who believe anything digital is fair game for fair use. You'll never convince them otherwise. But those saying there is nothing wrong with Mr. Hancock's app don't have anything too lose. They won't get sued. It will be Mr. Hancock. Heck maybe he even wins in court but does he have the deep pockets for a legal battle?

    Interesting debate, but I agree with the gist of Victoria Strauss's post. This app infringes on the copyright of others.

  27. If ever I found altered texts of my books online because of Story Surgeon, Ryan would get a big fat lawsuit to contend with. Just saying.

  28. I'm not a Mormon and had never heard of ClearPlay or Story Surgeon until today's Writer Beware post. I usually love, love, love Writer Beware, but I've got to say I have enormous sympathy for Ryan Hancock's opinions. As a parent, a former teacher, an Orthodox Jew, and a writer, I would LOVE for example to share The Absolutely True Adventures of a Part-time Indian with my children, etc., but never could because of certain words and ideas present in the text that do not necessarily contribute to the overall message of the book. Because people's religious sensitivities vary, it's not always possible, for example, me to even use something approved by a Mormon or an Evangelical Christian.

  29. Ryan, one of the important aspects of copyright is that it allows authors to control the uses of their work, not just to make money off it. To many if not most of us, that aspect of control is just as important: to be able to ensure that our work is disseminated as we wrote it, and that it carries our names.

    After all this discussion, I tend to agree with others that your app and the filters it will generate are non-infringing. However, you can't control the actions of your users. If you give people the means to privately create altered versions of books, how can you ensure that they won't find a way to disseminate those versions? Upload altered texts to torrent sites? Circulate bowdlerized texts under the original authors' names? Claim an altered text as their own original work? That's what I'm concerned about, and if you're really serious about developing this app, I think you need to be concerned about it too, because it will happen, and it could get you in trouble.

  30. And as for why I chose to veer off on a "moral maze tangent" instead of "helping my kickstarter cause", there have been many other who've expressed their evidence (or their opinion) that the app would constitute fair use. I wouldn't be able to add to that beyond reiterating what I clearly stated in my campaign:

    1. No part of the original novel will be shared.

    2. No one will be making money off of these author's work. (There will be no piece of the pie that they are missing out on.)

    3. We will honor the wishes of those (few) authors who have already denied readers the right to use their characters in fan fiction. (By removing such filters from the sharing site.)

    I'm sorry if my talk of God made some of you feel uncomfortable. Now you know how I feel when I face a page full of F-words.

  31. I read your article, Mick. Thanks for writing it.

    You said, "There is an unnecessary war being waged here that doesn't need to be fought. While I want to respect Ryan's opinions and views, it strikes me that there is almost an Adam & Eve and the forbidden fruit analogy at play here. Why would you feel the need to read great literature if you feel so much of it contains troubling, unsuitable or unsavoury elements? Fine, read something else you like. And while I feel there is a place and value for the Story Surgeon app (if it every actually happens), I'm concerned that he's missed an important point here. We buy what we like, what we identify with—not what we want to peer over the garden wall at, tease ourselves with, and then decide how we can best sanitise it for the joy and pleasure of others.

    "Seems to me it is like ordering coffee with sugar and then trying to scoop out the sugar grains before they dissolve. I've yet to decide whether Story Surgeon is a serious app or just another moral maze."

    What I say:

    It's true that we buy what we like.The difference is that some of the people I think make the best coffee only sell it with sugar (with the assumption that everyone loves it.) So when I continue to buy it and try to scoop out the grains, I'm showing my appreciation for everything else that went into making the coffee.
    It wasn't the rampant sex in The Wise Man's Fear that made me read it, it was the great characters and story.
    Yes, I can just avoid it. (And I would except I've already expressed how much I enjoyed the other aspects of it.)
    You feel my war is "unnecessary" and to 90% of the population it is. But for us 10% who value wholesomeness as much as a good story, the war is inevitable.

  32. Mick, thanks for a thoughtful look at this issue from a different angle. I've linked your commentary into my original post.

  33. Thanks for your response, Ryan. I've edited the post to add a link to it.

    Over at the SFWA website, Cory Doctorow has commented, and I've responded–in part by quoting John C. Bunnell's comment here, which I think states the problem very neatly. I.e., the app may not be infringing, but potential uses of the app certainly are.

    And to Anonymous: it always amuses me when extremists call other people extremists.

  34. I find this app refreshingly democratic. It's not only Fair Use, but it may even be permitted by copyright's First Sale Doctrine.

    Of course, if one wishes to take a Right-Wing Extremist Property Rights approach to copyright, the sort of view that would make Ayn Rand proud, I suppose one would oppose this app.

    All you copyright extremists remind me of Ayn Rand's Howard Roarke. In The Fountainhead, Roarke blew up a housing project because they altered his design. (Architectural designs are copyright-protected.)

    The irony is that most people here would regard themselves as progressive. Yet many otherwise liberal authors become Right-Wing Property Rights Extremists when that property is copyright.

    You'll all carrying water for a handful of mega-corporations who dominate world media, and you don't even know it. They take billions, toss you a few crumbs, and for that you defend their copyrights.

  35. I'm intrigued by Mr. Hancock's invocation of fan fiction as a key focus of his research, because my sense is that what Story Surgeon will do (under either the ClearPlay or CleanFlicks theories) is different from what most fan fiction does,

    Chris Meadows makes the better comparison; he refers to "remix culture", which occupies a fairly narrow range along the fanfictional spectrum. Story Surgeon appears to be meant specifically as a remixing tool, a means of generating derivative texts by what is essentially a process of direct substitution.

    This is significant for several reasons. First, only a very small subset of fan fiction consists explicitly of remixes (and even the remixes don't always follow a substitutional model). Second: at least in the parts of remix culture with which I'm familiar, most of the remixing involves works of fanfiction rather than professionally published parent works. (That is, avid remixers don't generally touch the official Star Trek novels published by Pocket Books — but they do cheerfully remix all sorts of Star Trek fanfiction.) Third, there's a strongly held view among many (though not all) remixers that one should have the permission of a fanwork's original author before creating and circulating a remix thereof.

    But there's a further wrinkle, and this is where I suspect matters become more dangerous. The kinds of substitutional texts Story Surgeon will generate strike me as scarily similar to texts that have been labeled as plagiarism by both fannish and professional observers. Let me give you three names: Cassie Claire (Harry Potter fanfic and a Pamela Dean novel); Kaavya Viswanathan (teen author who sold a novel to Little, Brown that was pulled shortly after its release); and Cassie Edwards (a now-notorious name among pro romance authors).

    Which invokes a Catch-22 situation. If a Story Surgeon alt-text is circulated with the original author's byline, that byline misrepresents the alt-text as the work of the original author, which is arguably fraud. But if that same text is circulated with the byline of the alt-text creator, I think the original author can call that plagiarism. And that's what they called a "no-win scenario" in the Star Trek movies….

  36. That being said, it is a pretty obvious idea—especially given he's not the first to have it.

    Sooner or later, someone will just write something like it himself, without needing to raise $15,000 first.

  37. Regardless of his comments regarding breach of copyright, and the legalities of fan-fic (based on researching ToS on fan-fic sites?) I predict a whole heap of DMCA notices coming his way when authors discover their books have been uploaded and "altered" using this app without their express permission. Sorry, Story Surgeon, I'm not convinced you've got a winner, here.

  38. I would expect that if the app just functioned as an e-reader with no way to save the modified text, that would do it. You can't save e-books from the Kindle app, just read them. (Though in the Windows version, they are written to the hard drive and you can get at them that way, of course.)

  39. Hi, Ryan, thanks for commenting.

    I think, in addition to looking at fanfic sites, it would be a good idea to spend some time researching how authors feel about fanfic, as well as about unauthorized use of their work. While some embrace it, many more do not, and if nothing else, it'd help prepare you for the challenges you might face if you go forward with this app.

    I also think that whatever your intentions for this app, you can't control what your users do with it. As Chris and Nate have pointed out, there are many non-infringing uses for your app, but there are also many infringing uses–such as uploading altered texts to torrent sites, or using your app to file the labels off a book and posting it as original fanfic–and it might be good (and I'm not knowledgeable in this area, so I don't know if this is possible) to include some way of preventing people from sharing the actual re-written texts, as opposed to just the filters.

    Please post a link to your blog post, and I'll add it to my post.

  40. It should be noted that CleanFlicks was making the edits itself, and passing on an edited version of the original. The problem with that is, it seems to make a difference to whether something is fair use if you do it yourself to if someone does it for you.

    ClearPlay = you (or, rather, your device) making the edits yourself = okay, even if the edits themselves come from someone else.

    CleanFlicks = creating an edited copy and passing it on along with the original = not okay, even though it would be perfectly fine for you to go into a video editing program and manually edit it yourself, as long as you didn't sell it to someone else.

    Likewise, Michael Robertson's streaming service, which attempted to use possession of a physical CD as proof of purchase to let you stream the same music on it from's servers was found to be not OK, but all the "music lockers" that sprung up retroactively (including ones run by Google, Amazon, and Apple) that let you rip and upload your own stuff are OK. (Ironically, many of them are doing much the same thing was: detecting the MP3s on your drive, and then just giving you access to their own copy of them without making you upload them. Seems like big money makes the difference.)

    It certainly sounded to me like this app is meant to do much the same thing as ClearPlay: allow you to make the edits for yourself by way of an app doing the heavy lifting for you.

    But we'll see what Ryan says when he responds more fully later.

  41. @Chris, DVD players are not limited to the changes they can make because you can't refilm parts of a movie–they're limited to the changes they can make because it's illegal to change the copy of the DVD. (Refilming parts of a movie is also illegal without permission from the copyright holder.)

    Your experience in watching a DVD where "objectional" parts are skipped over is not the same thing as editing out objectional parts. That's why the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act that you referred to earlier limited the DVD players to skipping over content. Without the copyright holder's permission, you cannot change the copy you have.

    And that's the crux of this–whether you have permission from the copyright holder to change something. If you don't have permission to change the work, you can't change it unless you can make a good argument for fair use–which, yes, you and I definitely disagree on whether this counts. "I didn't like what the writer did with MY character" just doesn't hold up.

  42. First of all, I'd like to thank Ms. Strauss for her article. It was very informative. (That's not sarcasm.) I'm not a follower of Writer Beware and look forward to future advice from literary professionals.
    Now to the article in question:
    Although she states several times that I obviously didn't think this app idea through, a more accurate representation of my situations would be "He can't afford a team of lawyers to help him think it through." I've spent hours scouring Fan Fiction sites (and reading the Terms of Service! Any idea how many brain cells I mutilated trying to comprehend that jargon?) and hours more researching companies that are successful (still in business) that are trying to accomplish the same thing I am: making the world a safer place for my kids to grow up in.
    I have no intention of breaking the law or infringing on anyone's copyrights. If it is decided that this app would do so, I would be the first to apologize and call myself an idiot with an overheated mind and loony idea….or rather the second person.
    Later tonight I will write a blog post defending my position and app idea. (I was going to do it now, but it's my grandpa's 90th birthday party and my wife reminded me in a not-so-subtle way that family is more important.)
    Thanks to everyone who commented, expressing your views. Especially those who can see what I'm trying to accomplish. (Thanks especially to Chris Meadows for letting me know I was getting the ink kicked out of me online.)
    p.s. Another thanks to Ms. Strauss for the editing helps. I think I posted the kickstarter info at 3 am.

  43. I think one of the problems here is that the description of what Story Surgeon is going to do is unclear.

    If it's like ClearPlay for books, then we know that's currently got precedent for conforming with US copyright laws.

    If it's like CleanFlix for books, then we know that's currently got precedent for violating US copyright laws.

  44. Except it does change the work you see. That's the whole point. That's a changed copy of the movie you just watched. Sure, it only exists for as long as you watch it, but while you watch it, it exists.

    Yes, the original version of it is still right there, unchanged, on the disc. But I expect the original version of the e-book file is right there in the program, too; after all, you might want to read it in the original form again. Meanwhile, it changes the version you read just as the DVD player changes the one you watch.

    Anyway, whether it changes it or makes a personal changed copy just for you, the principle is the same. You have the fair-use right to space-shift stuff, which is why it's legal to copy CDs to an iPod. So as long as you don't share your own reader version with anyone else, it shouldn't legally matter if it created a new copy or not—just like ripping your CDs is OK as long as you don't give someone else copies of the MP3s. (Bearing in mind I'm not a lawyer and stuff.)

    But I expect we'll just have to agree to disagree.

  45. Skipping over something in a DVD doesn't change the actual work. The recording of the DVD isn't altered. But these editable lists this guy wants to create DO change the actual work, even if it's temporary. And it provides a way for people to continue altering the work, which basically creates a derivative version of the work (or a bunch of them). Then they share that with others–all without permission of the copyright holder.

  46. Why not? In either case, you've got a program that is making changes to the text (using "text" in the sense of "original work" rather than just "words made up of letters") based on someone else's choices, and presenting that changed version to you.

    DVD players are limited in the kind of changes they can make because you can't just go in and re-film bits of a movie the way you can go in and re-write words on a page, but that's just a matter of degree. In either case, it's presenting you with a version of the work that has been changed from the auteur's original vision, with or without his approval.

    Sure, you can maybe export the changed version of the e-book and pass it on to someone else, but then you could tape off the changed version of the DVD, too. (And for that matter, you can crack DRM on existing titles and copy them unchanged, so it's not as if that's anything new.)

  47. I really don't think you can equate programming your DVD player to skip part of a DVD to actually altering content.

    At any rate, Chris and Nate, I've added links to your articles to my post.

  48. So? Skipping over part of it is just as much "altering" for purposes of copyright as adding stuff to it. And just as offensive to creators who don't want their work "bowdlerized." But they don't have a leg to stand on, because laws.

  49. But the DVD players that have the edit lists skip OVER content in the DVD. They don't alter anything of the actual work–even temporarily. Even a temporary change is a change, and it sounds like he's still editing the actual book to make the list. Then he provides the list to someone else to alter the version they bought.

  50. If he wants money he should ask Shia LeBeouf to bankroll him, seeing how he has no problem violating copyrights.

  51. I don't see a way to directly respond to Chris Meadows, but I think he's right.

    I think this app could have numerous non-infringing uses. What about an annotated Shakespeare play? Or what about the mom who rewrote The Hobbit so Bilbo was a girl?

  52. And it sounds like "having a book rewritten" is basically just shorthand for him going to the trouble of creating a customized edit list for that book. Like many geeks, he may just be having trouble expressing himself clearly.

  53. But are you sharing the altered version? When I record a commentary track, I don't create and upload a version of the movie with the track attached. I provide the track, and people play it for themselves.

    And what the fellow proposed in the post I linked back to—and what it sounds like this guy is proposing for his app—is that he buys a book, makes the edits, then his app spits out the edit list. He shares the edit list—not the original or altered version of the book—and someone else buys the same book, downloads the edit list, and applies the edit list to the book he just bought with that app.

    That's the same thing ClearPlay did: it had edit lists created by the DVD player manufacturer that it could download, and then when you slotted the bog-standard DVD of that movie in, the DVD player used the edit list to tell it what bits of the movie to jump over. That was specifically legislated to be OK, whereas actually making a new edited copy of the movie and passing that along was not.

    In this app as described, the only thing that changes hands would be the edit list. Otherwise there wouldn't be any point to having an app; you'd just hand-edit the books yourself.

  54. Not me. When I get a book, I either want to read what the author says or not read it at all. I don't want to rewrite it. That's a bit like interrupting someone while they're talking.

    In short, if you've got something to say on a topic, write your own book. Don't try to shout over what someone else has written.

    What's better than that is what already possible with the pop-up notes feature in the iBooks app. That's allowing an author to provide notes to his own writing. Uses:

    * For very complex, created worlds, it allows the author to explain the background.

    * For mysteries and thrillers, it allows an author to create Read Twice tales. Read it once without looking at the notes and try to guess what will happen. Then read it again to discover how the author slipped in clues.

    –Michael W. Perry, Across Asia on a Bicycle

  55. Interesting article, Chris; thanks for posting a link.

    What about the sharing aspect, though, which is an integral part of Story Surgeon's concept? If you add a commentary to your DVD using software for individual use, OK, even if you privately share it with a few friends–but what if one of the stated purposes of the software is encouraging the sharing of altered versions with strangers? That's what Story Surgeon is promoting–not just individual use, but active community sharing–and that would seem to me to take it beyond the realm of programmed re-editing.

    And what about the backer prizes, some of which offer backers the opportunity to have a book of their choice re-written by the app creator?

    I also think you're giving this guy too much credit for having come up with a serious concept. I think this is coming from someone who really hasn't thought things out, and doesn't understand the ramifications.

  56. But that law did not allow for creating new, edited copies of those films. It only allowed for DVD players to have the technology to skip over content parents might find objectional–not allow them to record a new, censored version of the film, and it definitely doesn't allow for them to pass it around to friends and family, or anyone else.

    It seems pretty clear-cut that this guy wants to create new versions of existing works and share those versions. He would need permission from copyright holders to do that.

  57. Also, regarding the legality of a film-length alternative soundtrack, check out the backstory behind Brad Neely's "Wizard People, Dear Reader." Warner Brothers certainly didn't think it was legal.

  58. Victoria: Doesn't an mp3 audio commentary track create a "new version of the movie" at playback time? After all, it's a version of the movie with someone else's sound superimposed.

    Maybe not a permanent one (unless you decide to play games with a movie ripper and video editor), but it's a transitory one that can be recreated in the same way whenever you want.

  59. Matt and Chris–

    It's not completely clear to me from his descriptions whether a "filter" is just a saved string of alterations that are applied to the original book, or complete, altered texts. Also, the app doesn't just add notes or commentary, but actually creates a new version of the book.

    In any case, to claim fair use you have to know what it is, and the app creator seems so clueless that I'd be surprised if he does. Also, even if a fair use argument could skirt copyright infringement for the app itself, the free sharing aspect adds a different element, i.e., people who'd download the filters and then disseminate the altered copies.

  60. This idea has actually been around for a while. It seems to resolve around the idea that, as long as what you're sharing is not the actual book but rather a form of notes taken about the book, it's a fair use. Falls under "review and criticism" and what-not.

    Is creating your own mp3 audio commentary track to be played along with a movie a "copyright violation"? You're not including any material from the movie, but you're essentially altering the experience of watching it. For a while, you could even get an app called "Sharecrow" that could be used for automatically synchronizing such tracks to played DVDs. (It faded away not for legal reasons, but because its maintainers just got tired of keeping it up, as far as I could tell.) Sounds like this app is designed to do effectively the same thing.

    It wouldn't necessarily even have to be used for changing one word of the original text; it could be a simple and convenient way to insert annotations into the text so that people could share and read them.

    Of course, in the end, only a court can say whether it's really a copyright violation or a permitted fair use, since that's just the way fair use works.

  61. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, "Only the owner of copyright in a work has the right to prepare, or to authorize someone else to create, a new version of that work."

  62. The legality of this is probably moot, as I can't really see there being a huge (or any) market for this. Certainly not $15,000 worth.

    But it is an interesting conundrum. According to the creator, he's simply saving filters, not the original text. So theoretically, he might indeed be able to get around copyright law that way.

    Say you have a copy of Harry Potter with all the instances of "Potter" changed to "Blotter." Hosting that file is certainly copyright infringement. However, is hosting a file that simply says ":s/Potter/Blotter" or "pg135: damn/darn" copyright infringement? I honestly don't know. The latter seems to be what the creator is implying this tool creates.

    Maybe I'm biased, as I'm generally a fan of remix culture, but I'm not sure this is obviously infringement. If I create a software patch for closed-source code, is that infringement? Not a rhetorical question, I'm genuinely curious.

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