Home » Copyright/Intellectual Property » Story Surgeon: An App For Copyright Infringement

Story Surgeon: An App For Copyright Infringement

24 January 2014

From Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware:

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.

Link to the rest at Writer Beware and thanks to Jeanne for the tip.

In updates, Victoria acknowledges that some believe that this would be fair use under US copyright law.

PG was reminded of a company called CleanFlicks, started to remove content that was not child-friendly from DVD and VHS versions of popular movies – sexual content, profanity, etc.

The service was structured so that CleanFlicks bought and paid for a separate copy of the DVD or tape of the motion picture in its original form for each copy CleanFlicks sold so the movie studio received full compensation for the copy of the movie licensed for home consumption. CleanFlicks used its technology to doctor the movie to remove the nasty bits and sold or rented the the cleaned-up movie to consumers.

The Directors Guild of American and Hollywood studios were preparing to file suit when CleanFlicks filed a preemptive lawsuit. CleanFlicks lost.

Here’s a short summary of the court decision:

“[Moviemakers’] objective…is to stop the infringement because of its irreparable injury to the creative artistic expression in the copyrighted movies,” the judge wrote. “There is a public interest in providing such protection. Their business is illegitimate.” [Judge Richard P.] Matsch ordered CleanFlicks and the other defendants to hand over their entire inventory of scrubbed flicks to the five major Hollywood studios and stop “producing, manufacturing, creating” and renting the cleaned-up material within five days or face possible court action, including the likelihood of massive penalties.

Here’s more on the case from The New York Times and an article saying the judge was wrong from Reason.

One of the concepts that floated around in the CleanFlicks matter and is present with Story Surgeon is the moral rights of creators in their works. Moral rights are generally protected under European law, but receive less (or no) recognition under the laws of the US, UK and other common law jurisdctions.

Here’s a definition:

The term “moral rights” is a translation of the French term “droit moral,” and refers not to “morals” as advocated by the religious right, but rather to the ability of authors to control the eventual fate of their works. An author is said to have the “moral right” to control her work. The concept of moral rights thus relies on the connection between an author and her creation. Moral rights protect the personal and reputational, rather than purely monetary, value of a work to its creator.

The scope of a creator’s moral rights is unclear, and differs with cultural conceptions of authorship and ownership, but may include the creator’s right to receive or decline credit for her work, to prevent her work from being altered without her permission, to control who owns the work, to dictate whether and in what way the work is displayed, and/or to receive resale royalties. Under American Law, moral rights receive protection through judicial interpretation of several copyright, trademark, privacy, and defamation statues, and through 17 U.S.C. §106A, known as the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA). VARA applies exclusively to visual art. In Europe and elsewhere, moral rights are more broadly protected by ordinary copyright law.

In the United States, the term “moral rights” typically refers to the right of an author to prevent revision, alteration, or distortion of her work, regardless of who owns the work. Moral rights as outlined in VARA also allow an author of a visual work to avoid being associated with works that are not entirely her own, and to prevent the defacement of her works. 

Link to the rest at Moral Rights Basics

Copyright/Intellectual Property

31 Comments to “Story Surgeon: An App For Copyright Infringement”

  1. Then you can use the app to read the original eBook (booooring) or make your own person [sic] changes to the text. (OH YEAH!)

    Hunh? Am I missing something? Reading the original ebook version is a bore but messing with the text isn’t? Unless the book IS boring, but that’s another matter altogether (I think). 🙂

    I don’t get it, but maybe it’s just me. And wouldn’t there be some sort of legal problems with this?

    Why doesn’t he just write his own book, and he can mess with the text to his heart’s content?

    • Because he’s a Mormon offended by “vulgar” language, and wants to ensure his reading experiences aren’t diminished by “mature content.”

      What he’s proposing is a “filter,” and filters by their nature “distort,” so it seems pretty clear this violates moral rights.

      • So long as they’re buying my books, I really don’t care. Otherwise, it’s like telling people ‘no, you must read every word I wrote, you can’t skip the boring parts!’.

        Heck, just imagine you didn’t have to read through hundreds of pages of the Bible to get to the sex and violence.

        • Yeah, that was my feeling on it, too. I know not nearly enough about copyright law to comment intelligently on that aspect of it, but everybody has to buy the original ebook first, before they make changes. And the changes will go to a blog where other people can read the altered text. Am I reading that correctly?

          Seems to me like it’s exposure to people who wouldn’t normally find the book, via that blog, and some of the blog-readers might go on and buy the original ebook.

          It basically seems like a way to do an MST3K treatment on ebooks and then share than via an app, which I don’t see anything overtly wrong with, though it sounds a lot more boring than just reading a boring ebook. Unless I’m totally misunderstanding everything that’s going on here (possible…I’ve been trying to give up The Devil Coffee lately and it’s ruining my perception.)

          • Libbie, the modifications only go somewhere (assuming it works the way the other one I saw discussed) and someone else can read the modified version, but only if they buy the original ebook and the app. Then the reading is done on a tablet or computer running the app. There might be more exposure for a book somewhere in there (a list of books with modifications available somewhere, I’m not sure). Putting the modified version to a blog where it could be read by anyone would violate copyright.

            The key to why this doesn’t is that no one who reads the modified version can do so without purchasing the original work.

      • What are you talking about, Will? Just think of all the Gay Batman fanfic you can create by substituting the dynamic duo into your favorite erotica shorts.

  2. On the other hand, a better way to communicate obvious typos with the (self?)publisher would be great.

    I spent more than 1 hour yesterday tu report the 30+ typos I had found in a book.

    Of course, it was a LONG book, and I enjoyed it greatly, (was my second reading after all) or I wouldn’t have gone that extra mile.

    An application such as the one discussed would have been great for that (with the other caveat being that it would need to run directly on my Kobo e-reader.)

  3. “Story Surgeon” sounds way too icky. I mean, what will they do to those poor stories? I propose a better, jazzier name!

    The Lazy Person’s Fan Fiction Template


  4. Isn’t this the equivalent of taking a work of art and dress the nude or applying make up on Mona Lisa? The old masters are not protected by copyrights, and this is done frequently. When I was in Florence they were selling posters of a fat David, returning from America after six months vacation. I am sure that Michelangelo would not be amused.

  5. This reminds me of an entry I came across in the British Library catalogue when researching Spenser’s Faerie Queene:

    Spencer Redivivus; containing the first book of the Fairy Queen; his essential design preserv’d, but his obsolete language and manner of verse totally laid aside. Deliver’d in heroick numbers. By a Person of Quality.



  6. Passive Guy, you mentioned CleanFlicks but you didn’t mention the similar “ClearPlay,” a DVD player that used pre-made edit lists you downloaded to edit DVDs on the fly as they were being played. It was subject to a lawsuit, too, but then Congress passed a law to make it explicitly legal. (Covered it in my piece on the Surgeon matter, which Victoria was kind enough to link from hers.)

    It’s really not so far of a stretch from a DVD player making edits to a movie on the fly to an e-reader app making edits to an e-book on the fly, is it?

  7. Interesting, though not particularly new, idea. Perhaps as much political and religious as technical in its intent and ramifications.

    StoryVandal might be a more appropriate name.

    I see at least four issues:
    – Expense/expertise to implement adequately.
    – Puts burden on authors to discover they are being exploited and to opt-out, rather than on developer and customers.
    – Even if doesn’t infringe copyright, probably violates e-store terms of use.
    – Doesn’t even begin to protect the developer or their customers from the expenses involved in a major trial or legal challenge. BS all one wants about what rights and protections the developer and customers have due to copyright, incorporation, etc….. the legal fees, let alone damages involved in a challenge, let alone a loss, will be many times the fundraising being requested.

    Only allowing for works where the creators/copyright holders/e-stores voluntarily opt in up front presumably would work… But drastically limit the works available.

  8. Also assumes that Apple and other app stores will allow the app to be placed on the stores.

  9. I don’t really see the guy’s Kickstarter being successful, whether it really is fair use or not. Too easy for people who disagree to shut it down.

    That being said, sooner or later someone who knows how to code will probably write a program on the same general principle, either completely from scratch or as a plugin to one of the open-source e-book reading or processing apps, like FBReader or Calibre.

    And it’s not like the guy really needs it to solve his problem. He can crack the DRM and hand-edit the e-book however he wants. He was just wanting to make things easier for other people, kind of like sharing notes taken on the book (“Skip chapter 3, it’s not really relevant”) but in automated format.

  10. In the interest of not being wasteful, can the dirty bits be made available to me to insert into books I find aren’t dirty enough?

  11. I already have an app for this. I call it “my imagination.”

  12. I wrote a post about this for Indies Unlimited a couple months ago:


    I’m not sure if this is the same people or someone else from the same area doing the same basic thing. (PG, you need to tell those people in your neighborhood to stop obsessing over naughty words.) PG is the real lawyer, while I only pretend to know what I’m talking about on the internet, but I’m fairly sure this app is legal. Part of that is a law introduced by Orin Hatch (R-Utah) to define what is and isn’t okay. This app appears to meet the standard of what is okay.

    • Looks like a different person with the same idea.

      Which kind of proves my point. If it’s that easy to come up with it independently, sooner or later someone will make one.

  13. Sounds like a horrible idea for anyone who values copyright.

  14. You can already do this anyway.

    1. Use Calibre or another format converter, and convert the original format of the text file to HTML, .doc, .txt, etc.

    2. Edit out anything you don’t like; edit in anything you like. Search and replace anything you feel like.

    3. Save the results in the format of your choice.

    Shrug. If people really want to do it, they’ll do it. Mostly they won’t, because they have no reason to go to all that trouble. Most people do not edit books for fun.

    • You can do that, but then you’re staring at the naughty words far longer than if you just read it. Unless deleting naughty words gives one sadistic pleasure, downloading someone’s filter that automatically does that without having to do it yourself would be an advantage to not have to look at them at all, if you were concerned about that.

  15. Where I could see this violating copyright would be in how much changes the filter makes. I don’t remember the estimated percentage of changes, but at some point a filter could be considered the equivalent of fan fiction, and selling the filter could violate copyright. Taking out bad words or rewriting racy scenes may fall under fair use, but at some point a filter author’s changes might go beyond fair use.

    It would seem that could be the lynch pin on whether it is a legal app or not.

  16. If it actually comes into being, I predict the filters ADDING naughty bits to books outnumber the filters removing naughty bits about 10 to 1.

  17. I once bought a book at a used book store that when I sat down to read it had all of the “naughty” words whited out– even the very mild ones, in fact I think it only had mild ones. It was a book of over 400 pages so I couldn’t imagine the amount of time it took someone to do that. They clearly could have benefited from the filter.

    And yes to the adding naughty bits to books. Now when I review certain books I feel I need to warn people if there is no explicit sex.

  18. I’m not really worried that Ryan’s project will get off the ground,considering the lack of action on his social media and Kickstarter, but he rubbed me the wrong way.I wrote something on his Facebook. I mentioned that he is teaching his children a very dangerous lesson.

    His response was to direct me to a new post on his blog about Mormonism and morality. I notice that he will not include lesbian or gay fiction in his app. I guess discriminating against the LGBT community is OK.

    I’m also not a fan of fan fiction. Ryan claims this app will be a boon to those people who like to rewrite someone else’s story. Write your own story. If you can’t think of anything to write about, then maybe you should take up a new hobby.

    Changing words to something else totally ruins the meaning and it doesn’t work. When we watch movies or TV shows where they have bleeped out a word, we can usually figure out what they said. If someone says, “This casserole tastes like bleep.” We know the word and it is already in our mind. Unless you are writing for children, changing it to this casserole tastes like “poo” just doesn’t have the same impact. What word would Ryan use? Feces? Excrement? Which one is the best word for his app? Ryan’s casserole tastes like a gluten free, fat free, all vegan casserole with no seasoning. (I don’t eat meat, so no offense to vegans and vegetarians.)

  19. If certain parts of a book offend you, why not just stop reading it?

    There are whole genres of books that don’t contain language and sex. Why not just read those?

    I’m so lost on this one. Seems like the guy just kind of needs to, I dunno…write his own books? Or maybe just get a life?

    • I think that’s what most people like that do. They stop reading it. While I think the market is small, I can see some who might really want to read a book because of the story, buzz from friends, reviews, etc, but don’t want to subject themselves to those kinds of things. But I think those folk would only use it for novels where such words are used only occasionally, not every page. Who wants to read “heck” several times a page in a profanity-laced book?

      I should add, though, that is isn’t always due to being offended. Most of the time the avoidance of profanity and such is due to a philosophy of garbage in, garbage out. They simply don’t want to feed their minds that stuff.

      I don’t care for it. I don’t mind a little here and there, but if it is all over the place, I am more likely to stop reading it than I would be to go find a profanity filter for it. I think most people would, so I doubt there will be much of a market for that filter. But who knows. I’ve been wrong before.

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