Story Surgeon: An App For Copyright Infringement

Posted by Victoria Strauss for 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. 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.

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 two 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.”

11 Responses

  1. Cory Doctorow

    Victoria, I really think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick here.

    Story Surgeon is a list of reading suggestions for people who own the book.

    It’s like saying, “You know, Tolkien added in the meals and poems for the second edition of LOTR as filler, you should just skip them.” Or “If you listen to Dark Side of the Moon while you watch Wizard of Oz with the sound off, it’s really cool!” Or “Adding ‘aint got no pants on’ to the end of every line in ‘St James Infirmary’ works surprisingly well.”

    There is no way that it is a copyright infringement — or even a bad idea — for readers to chose, privately, in what order they read the books that they lawfully possess. If you don’t oppose readers re-reading their favorite chapters, or advising others on what their favorite chapters are, or suggesting that after reading chapter X of book Y, they can gain insight by reading a critical passage, or a chapter from another book, then how can this be offensive?

    There is no “skirting” of copyright law here. What is being passed around is an edit-decision-list for text — a set of instructions that readers voluntarily follow in order to get a different experience of a book. From copyright’s perspective, this is no different to an index prepared by a third party (“If you want to find every mention of mirror-shades in Neuromancer, see pages 10, 72, 99, and 143″). It is a list of places where a reader can choose to find text that a friend recommends.

    Writers have absolutely no business telling readers in what order to read their books. Certainly, the law is (correctly) silent on this question, because it would be insane overreach for copyright to tell readers what they’re allowed to do with their books — it would be like a law that banned the “shuffle” button on a CD player because the musician intended for albums to be listened to sequentially.

    I often mark passages in books that I wish to revisit. I often tell other people about those passages. And sometimes, I prepare work for readers to read between those passages. That is the heart and soul of practically every work of criticism every penned. Are you saying that I infringe upon copyright? If so, we’d better get the panda car around to John Clute’s place, because by this standard, he’s Public Enemy Number One.

    Cory

  2. Victoria Strauss

    I’ll admit that when I wrote this post I was only peripherally aware of apps and software for re-editing/re-mixing video. If I had been, I might not have been so hard on Mr. Hancock’s concept.

    However, that doesn’t diminish my concern about what people will _do_ with the app. 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 a comment left on my original blog post (at http://www.accrispin.blogspot.com), 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.

    1. Cory Doctorow

      Victoria, I’m sorry, I can’t see how the case you describe doesn’t have any more potential for infringement than any word-processor.

      I think it’s important to distinguish between “this is a stupid idea” and “this idea should be illegal.” The guy wants to butcher YA novels because he’s a blue-nosed asshole censor who thinks that dirty words harm children. That is a stupid and inglorious goal. But it’s possible to decry that stupid and inglorious goals without invoking copyright.

      The other important point here is that this guy has virtually no exposure right now — his dumb idea has been recognized by the market as stupid and no one is funding it (as a former software developer, I can’t imagine why this guy needs 15 grand to write some perl scripts). But making him a martyr in a free-speech case WILL give him attention, and sympathy to his cause.

      I think that tractically, calling attention to dumb, obscure ideas is unsound. And I think strategically, reaching for copyright as the tool of first resort to make people stop doing things that you don’t like is even more unsound.

  3. Gratbarst

    Lawyers across the States already licking their lips. Two different opinions on what the law says, a country that loves litigation. Mr Hancock should probably add a bit to his kickstarter to cover legal insurance.

  4. Victoria Strauss

    Cory, calling attention to dumb ideas is one of the things Writer Beware does. I’m constantly amazed and fascinated by the bizarre things that crop up at the fringes of publishing, and that’s why I highlight them when I find them–because I think they’re interesting, funny, or so insane that other people might get a chuckle or a headshake out of reading about them.

    I am certainly not “reaching for copyright as the tool of first resort to make people stop doing things that you don’t like.” I support copyright protections and worry about their erosion in this digital age, but I’m not a copyright ideologue. I don’t know how familiar you are with Writer Beware, but that isn’t, and never has been, one of my focuses. I’m also not interested in “stopping” Mr. Hancock–I wouldn’t have given him another thought had it not been for the (entirely unanticipated) response to my post. Nor is my concern about his app’s potential for enabling infringement merely a convenient club to beat him down. It’s a real concern.

  5. Django Wexler

    I have to agree with Cory. A good comparison, I think, is with the works at Rifftrax.com — they distribute audio tracks that are designed to be synced up with the DVD version of a movie, to provide an MST3K-like running commentary. This is pretty clearly non-infringing. (And the movie studios agree — the Rifftrax guys DO distribute video-with-commentary when they can afford to license it from the copyright holders, so they work closely with them.)

    Now, as Victoria points out, it could easily cross the line. To stay with the analogy, it would be easy to take a video file of a movie, add the Rifftrax commentary, and re-distribute it. (In fact, this is common on pirate sites.) But the problem there is not the commentary, but the redistribution of the original — it’s no *more* of a problem then people flat-out pirating the work in the first place.

  6. Ryan Hancock

    Cory,
    I appreciate you clarifying your position in regard to my app. It’s nice to know you think it is legal, if not useful or morally sound. As for my religious beliefs making me an a-hole, I think there are other, more appropriate criteria for categorizing someone as such. (Name-calling and sarcasm come to mind.)
    At any rate, wih your parenting ideas, I’m glad you’re not the father of my children, but then I suppose the feeling is probably mutual.
    Incidentally, do you really think the programmers I hired are fleecing me? (Not that I’ll get it funded. As you pointed out, I seem to be lacking in financial support.)

  7. Cory Doctorow

    Hey, Victoria. Yes, I’m very familiar with WB and have promoted it lots.

    With respect, I don’t think that point out scams that target writers is the same as pointing out fundraisers for legal projects that have dumb ideas about reading.

    In the first event, a lack of knowledge about a scam might lead to writers falling prey to it. In the second, the worst impact of not knowing about the project is identical to the worst impact of knowing about it in detail: nothing.

    But publicizing a fundraiser — especially through a claim of its illegality that is unfounded and makes martyrs of them — has a secondary effect for the fundraiser, which is to make an otherwise odious idea sympathetic for readers.

    I know you’re not a copyright ideologue, but this post espouses a maximialist view of copyright — rightsholders have the right to determine how people read; or rightsholders have the right to demand that tools be designed so they can’t sustain any infringing uses.

    Even the kind of copyright infringement you’re worried about — passing off one work as another — is mostly not a problem with copyright, it’s a fraud question. And the idea that this technology’s objectionable quality is that it is possible to violate copyright law (secondarily, alongside commiting an act of fraud) with it is pretense, to my eyes, at least.

    The standard for lawfulness in technology that interacts with copyrighted works was set down in the Betamax suit: a technology capable of sustaining a substantial noninfringing use is lawful. That standard was modified by the Grokster court, which included a (misguided, IMHO) “enticement” standard that makes a technology infringing if its creators entice its users to infringe, and have actual knowledge of the infringement, and the ability to stop it.

    None of those things apply here. Storysurgeon encourages people to have dumb ideas about kids, books and reading: but it doesn’t encourage them to do illegal things.

    ==

    Ryan, your religious beliefs don’t enter into it, unless your Bible integrates some particularly prissy aopcrypha in which parents are instructed to ensure that their children are vouchsafed from Ango-Saxon monosyllables. In which case, yeah, you’ve got a loony religion, too.

  8. Kathryn Allen

    Thank you for calling attention to this. The idea of fanfiction on steroids where “fanfiction” becomes the ability to change the existing text… An ap for that and ‘filters’ that can be shared means that even if I get less marketable stories published (the ones with too many characters who’re not white middle-class heterosexual American males) they can be altered after publication so they’re more palatable. Stories my friends have written where the societies of the future are predominantly non-white (like the current population of the world) can be quickly and easily corrected to look like Firefly. With Story Surgeon disturbing elements can vanish, making my work safe for exactly the kind of people I didn’t write the story for and didn’t care if I offended by not writing it for them. Or they can keep the gay characters but have them die of AIDS. The uppity women can get raped or romanced into their place. My fears of vanishment are short-sighted when with a few minutes extra work there’s the possibility of adding a teachable moment to the text. A character is a drug-dealer — clearly they *should* be black. Likes to cook and is married to a man — definitely a woman. Even in the rewards it’s made plain that you can have Harry Potter rewritten as Harriet Potter — but she’ll be friends with Hermione and marrying Ron. (Which means that the object here is *not* a simple insertion of a name change or a reader choosing to skip any sex or violence in the text) I could end up discovering that the major source of any money I make writing comes from bigots, or else have to make it known that I don’t support fanfiction of any kind so as to keep ‘filters’ of my work from being spread via the site (which may or may not be a binding commitment once the new form of Story Surgeon is up and running).
    What’s as bad is that in order to stop this kind of thing happening, the same interests that have made copyright law unfit for the purpose of protecting the creator against unprincipled exploitation will use popular and creative revulsion to call for even more protections for *their* properties. And get them.

    Mr Hancock, everyone runs into disappointing books *coughLittlebrother* and many people have to deal with the conflicts of belief/desire and a culture that doesn’t cater to their personal wants. Rewriting a book may seem like a solution but it doesn’t actually change that the person who created the original didn’t write the new version. Plus, creating and marketing a substitute for pork-based bacon may let one eat a kind-of BLT but still means one is trying to get around a religious prohibition and tempting others to do the same. Please stop. Please don’t do this. Doubtless it will come, because ideas are bulletproof, but please don’t be the one to take it forward. Once you’ve released this into the world it’s pretty much a given that it will be used to add violence and rape and incest and bestiality. Have you *seen* what people write as fanfiction? You may well find yourself loved by people you do not like, and disliked by people you admire, and leaving a legacy that shames you. And you won’t be able to say that you weren’t warned, or that you didn’t know what could happen. There are other, simpler, ways to expurgate text (frex simply masking text would be an odd but acceptable form of censoring ones reading material) — please, if you must do this thing, at least consider limiting the potential for abuse by considerably limiting the scope of the ap you’re creating — be a surgeon, not a literary Jack the Ripper, and abstain from doing harm.