Writer 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.
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
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.