Story Surgeon: Copyright infringement or fair use?

storysurgeonWriter Beware has an interesting post today linking to a Kickstarter for what WB’s Victoria Strauss calls “an app for copyright infringement.” The app is called “Story Surgeon,” is seeking $15,000, and the idea is that the app will let you create edits to an e-book, save the edits, and then share just the edits. Someone else can then take the same book and the same edits and “reconstitute” the edited book with that program.

This is not exactly a new idea. We covered Chris Walters discussing the same basic idea slightly over two years ago:

A wholly formed and unauthorized Harry Potter novel would clearly be a violation of U.S. copyright law, but the process is decentralized so that neither the author of the new work nor the template website is responsible for the final creation of the infringing work. In fact, other templates are available that would turn the story into a brand new work with original characters and places, or that would let a reader personalize it with friends and local places. If you’re feeling perverse, you can apply a Vampire Chronicles template and giggle at Lestat, Louis and Claudia as mystery solving young wizards vampires.

It also seems to bear some resemblance to the kind of programmed re-editing that ClearPlay or TVGuardian do, to remove dirty words and other explicit material from TV shows so they are safer for younger viewers. (The same thing that the fellow trying to Kickstart Story Surgeon originally wanted to do it for, in fact.) ClearPlay was the subject of a lawsuit for creating unauthorized derivative works of movies, then Congress passed a law (which our founder David Rothman took some note of at the time) explicitly declaring what it did legal. (Another service, Clean Films, that actually physically edited the movies and sold the edited copy along with an unedited copy was not so lucky, and was found guilty of copyright violation.)

It also puts me in mind of the practice of creating MP3 audio commentary tracks to be played along with DVDs. (I’ve made a couple myself, for Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro and a Robotech episode.) They don’t include a single thing explicitly copied from the copyrighted movie, but they nonetheless change the experience of watching it. Pretty clearly not illegal either, any more than giving a friend a copy of your notes taken on a book or movie or whatever would be.

Even if making fan edits of books was illegal, template or not, the app would seem to have plenty of non-infringing uses—which is the reason that the Sony Betamax VCR was found legal thirty years ago even though it had infringing ones as well. Creating your own sharable annotations and footnotes for a book, for example.

Of course, in actual practice all it would take to get this shut down is probably someone filing a cease-and-desist order, or even just complaining loudly enough to Kickstarter. Someone looking to get just $15,000 to develop an app is not exactly going to be able to cover legal fees to defend himself. Which is a pity; I think the app could very well be a reasonably good idea.

Update: Nate Hoffelder has another post saying something similar over on The Digital Reader.

Update 2: Cory Doctorow tends to agree. Also, the fellow kickstarting the project wrote his own blog post about it.

7 Comments on Story Surgeon: Copyright infringement or fair use?

  1. I have to agree with you, Chris, that this has numerous non-infringing uses. What about an annotated Shakespeare play? Or what about the mom who rewrote The Hobbit so Bilbo was a girl?

    http://ebookne.ws/1iru1E5

  2. Of course this kind of thing will require defeating DRM in most cases so its already illegal in the US due to DMCA and in other countries that have similar statutes. That leads to asserting that such an app will be “contributing to” or even “fomenting” illegal behaviors. There are many laws against “enabling” the breaking of laws too.
    Once DRM is removed, one can use find/replace to any effect in the privacy of their own abode. So, have I done anything illegal if I provide you with a stepwise recipe for changing a story using find/replace and you follow it? If that’s not criminal, how about if I provide you with a script that does the same thing much faster and more accurately? How about an app that contains that script and is easier to use? This may be the root of the fear.

  3. Chris thanks so much for your article! It meant a lot both that you support me and that you let me know about Ms. Strauss’s article. (I would’ve been completely oblivious.)
    I was excited to see that a successful British author agrees with us and told Victoria so in no uncertain terms. Here’s my own response in case you’re interested:
    http://storysurgeongeneral.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-most-important-blog-post-i-will.html

  4. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in the US effectively abrogates fair use. Here’s a great little video by Eric Faden entitled “A Fair(y) Use Tale” that illustrates by example the many facets of fair use: https://podcasting.usg.edu/4DCGI/Podcasting/GCSU/Episodes/18114/3004.mp4
    There are also many instances of educational fair use that are not illustrated here.
    All of these things are perfectly legitimate as long as you don’t have to defeat DRM to do so. Thus, the DMCA makes it impossible to use DRM’d works under fair use or fair dealing.
    There are exemptions. The 2010 exemption for eBooks says, “Literary works distributed in e-book format when all existing e-book editions of the work (including digital text editions made available by authorized entities) contain access controls that prevent the enabling either of the book’s read-aloud function or of screen readers that render the text into a specialized format.”
    Perhaps those last two words offer some hope.

  5. To me the question is: Why don’t these people, the creator of Story Surgeon, for instance, just write their own stories? I’m serious. Why not write, create something of their own instead ripping-off people who take the time and hard work to create something? It just seems lame. Another example of how the internet can empower people to be lazy and fall into the delusion that ripping-ff other people is being creative.

  6. That’s not the idea behind the app. Honestly, I can see where it’s coming from. Countless times I’ve wanted to share some book, or for that matter TV show, with one of my nieces and nephews then been brought up short when I realized, “Oops, no, that has dirty words in it and their parents would kill me.”

  7. Deran,
    I do write my own stories. And doubtless some people will find things they want to change with them. (I’m not going to throw a fit. )

    If anyone’s interested, I’ve addressed the Author’s Moral Rights.
    http://storysurgeongeneral.blogspot.com/2014/01/morality-and-thomas-jefferson.html

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