Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Most Important Blog Post I Will Ever Write

Photo: Happy 90th Birthday to my Grandpa Hancock!  One of the hardest working, humble, full of faith, men that I have ever known.  So proud to call him Grandpa!

I just returned from my grandpa's 90th birthday party. This is him as a Merchant Marine in WWII.

Here's another picture of him taken about a year ago. One day I hope to be half as amazing as him.

Sadly, while Grandpa Chuck was recounting war stories this evening, it was hard for me to give him my full attention. I was thinking about Victoria Strauss's article and feeling mildly sick. Don't get me wrong, I'm actually grateful Ms. Strauss took the time to write such a thorough analysis of my Story Surgeon App idea. Copyrights, censorship, and fan fiction are all very touchy subjects and it seems my kickstarter campaign has stirred up a passionate debate.

The Writer Beware blog presents a compelling argument against the legality of my app, while others on TeleRead and The Digital Reader claim it successfully skirts the copyright laws. (While author Cory Doctorow says "There is no way that it is a copyright infringement--or even a bad idea--for readers to choose, privately, in what order they read the books that they lawfully possess." Find his response to Strauss's article here.)

To me, the question of whether the app will be (or can be used for) copyright infringement is moot. If the court (or a lawyer I trust) tells me what I'm proposing isn't legal, I'll cease and desist. The real question is what authors feel they have to lose by "allowing" this app to exist.

When I explained the debate to my dad tonight he seemed confused. "What's in it for you?" he asked. I think what he meant was, "Why are you putting yourself in the line of fire and setting yourself up for possible litigation when you're not even going to charge for the app or the filters? Why would you risk that?"

I gave part of my answer in my last blog post, although perhaps I was a little harsh on Mr. Rothfuss. Despite my dissatisfaction with parts of his second novel, I still enjoyed it immensely. (I gave it a four-star review.) But what this book brought into conflict was my love of great literature and my love of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I hesitate to bring religion into this since many do not share my beliefs or values, but I think to understand why I would champion such an "app for copyright infringement" as Ms. Strauss called it, one needs to understand my dilemma.

There are many people that are passionate about books. They live and breathe the fictional worlds of their favorite authors and those author's words are sacred. Even if those words are disturbing or vulgar.

There are many people who are passionate about keeping their minds and bodies pure. They believe this life is the time to prepare to meet God and as such, try to avoid (or help their kids to avoid) amoral influences or media that could make it difficult to feel the Holy Ghost to guide them. For them, the answer is a no-brainer: Stay away from books with mature content.

The problem I'm facing is that I'm firmly entrenched in both groups and feel like I'm being ripped in two. There is so much great literature out there (especially when you read books intended for adults) that has profanity, graphic violence, and explicit sex. Things the majority of the literary world would just shrug at.

For years, the way I coped (and the way I believe many other conservative readers cope) is to buy exclusively YA lit. Generally books written for young adults have less mature content than those for an older audience. However, this is becoming less true of late. In my own reading, I've noticed a significant increase in adult content in books marketed toward teens. While some applaud this as a triumph for free speech, others (like this WSJ children's book reviewer see this is as lack of judgement on the part of adults).   

This app idea (I thought) would be the tool that bridged the two sides. Why complain to the school and get The Color Purple banned, when you can simply download a filter that will tweak the content to make it more appropriate for your child. Isn't that what the TV networks do when they substitute "freak" when the movie character is obviously saying something else? Young students can still learn the great lessons and appreciate the historical (and social) significance of this powerful book without being fully exposed to the darkest sides of human nature. When they've matured, if they choose to read the original, it will be an informed decision. Not one forced on them by teachers who don't hold their values.

I was selfish in developing this app. I wanted to find the best books out there and tweak them a bit, so my friends and family (most of whom are very conservative readers) can enjoy them as much as I did. In my own mind, I was helping to enlarge the market for authors such as Patrick Rothfuss. (It makes sense to me, seeing as how owning a Clearplay DVD player allows me (and thousands of others) to watch movies I wouldn't otherwise rent.)

So the question isn't "Why is Ryan Hancock trying to mutilate these authors' visions?"

Rather it should be, "Why would Ryan Hancock choose an author's vision over the teachings of his God?"

The answer is that I wouldn't. Despite my love of great stories, if I was told I could not develop the Story Surgeon app I would have to give up many of my favorite books. Neither would I feel I could recommend them to my friends. Many will see this decision as extreme or fanatic, but if I'm forced to choose, God will always win. This may seem trite or even offensive to some who worship a more liberal God, but the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (or Mormons) are not exactly ambiguous. We need to stand up for values that have long since been devalued by the world in general. I intend to do that. And I intend to do it legally.

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. If you don't agree, I'd appreciate hearing your side. Please feel free to share your reasons in the comments section. For those who agree with me, please make your voice heard. There aren't a lot of us out there feeling torn between our books and our beliefs, but there are enough.

And I hope there are enough people out there who although they might not share my particular beliefs or values, can at least see my Story Surgeon dream not as hate mail to all those published authors, but as the most sincere and heartfelt fan letter I've ever written.

(Thanks to for the picture of Christ)


  1. I offer this as a writer who deliberately writes with as little profanity as possible and, to this point at least, no sex. If you have a young lady that runs, I have a book she'll love - and it's clean entertainment, by deliberate design. What you propose is different.

    Perhaps a question that should be fully asked, Ryan, is why you should seek to alter the art of another person purely for your own enjoyment? In effect, that is precisely what you are attempting to do. You do not own the story but only the medium that it is delivered on (and perhaps given the laws on electronic materials, not even that.)

    I respect your position of choosing God over the works of man. That is noble. But it certainly appears that, rather than create your own art, or seek out art that meets your standards, you simply say that it is acceptable for you to continue to encourage the publication of objectionable materials (through the purchase of them) while decrying the foulness. That, I believe, qualifies as hypocrisy. I would say that the same thing could be said of Clearplay with the added proviso that they also profit from the foulness in a direct fashion.

    Perhaps another question you should ask is whether it is morally acceptable to support artists whose work you find objectionable? Clearplay made their decision. They'll take the profits while tsk-tsking all the way to the bank.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Paul. I think what it comes down to is this: is it more important to an author to maintain the integrity of their vision, or to have more people enjoy (and pay for) their book. The answer is different for everybody. To me, the most important thing is enjoying as many great books as I can. (And mature content makes it hard for me to enjoy them.) If that is hypocracy, then I suppose I'm a hypocrite.

    1. Ryan, in my case, it is the author's vision. My books won't have the prurient material that you seek to exclude-but your tool would be perfectly capable of inserting it. It would also be perfectly capable of entirely changing the underlying messages of my work.

      Would I make more money by going the route of sleaze? Probably but that's not the sole reason I write. Why should I support your efforts when, in a year, I can discover that my book now has a hard romance of a type that I wouldn't condone.

      You raised the issue of piracy - I'm not worried about piracy, all of my books will be non-DRM. But corruption, the placement of someone else words in my mouth and by my name, that bothers me.

    2. Fair enough. I appreciate your candor. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. I can appreciate your values. As an author, my only qualm with your app is that the filters can be shared. Once you can take this "creation" outside of the app, you open the door for plagiarism. Period. If the filter is only within the app, and only within the reader and cannot be shared, then ... at least to my mind ... it is no different than if someone were to sit in the Louvre and redraw a masterpiece to their own sensibility. It only lives in their sketchbook and no where else.

    The crack in the door to plagiarism is the same, again to my way of thinking, as saying "here is a tool to potentially steal someone's paycheck from them." Why should I be forced to willfully put my earnings, my ability to support my family at risk?

    1. Thanks for your comment! As Victoria Strauss said, she's worried determined people will find a way to use Story Surgeon to pirate the books or share the entire altered version rather than the filter. I agree with her, but I believe the app will accomplish more good than harm. (Like helping parents, and even increasing an author's eBook sales.) when I spend a month creating a filter for a book, I'm going to pressure my friends and family to buy the original eBook so they can use it. Yes, some might figure out how to use it for dishonest purposes.
      Should we outlaw CD burners because they can be used to pirate music?

  4. Just one more voice urging you to push on. If the moneyed interests of the world continue to have their way with fair use and the public domain then the only place left to hear anything other than the official voice of mainstream media will be the sidewalk outside the big box store. Then they'll want to take out the sidewalk because of, you know, the auto industry, and walking not being taxable.

  5. Thanks Anon, for your comment. (It made me smile.) I appreciate your support. I want to see this app made. If someone else decides to run with it and do a better job, I'll support them wholeheartedly. The only thing about that, however, is I'd be worried they would charge a monthly subscription fee (like Clearplay) and I'm poor. :)
    If I manage to get enough funding for the app, it will be available for a couple dollars (if not for free.) Take that moneyed interests of the world! :)

  6. I'm trying to understand your argument, and your different point of view. But here's where I'm having a problem. Your argument is that you want to read books, but are unhappy when the books don't fit your moral, so you want to change them, even if the authors are made unhappy by you doing that. You are willing to make creators unhappy so that you can be happy. And worse than that, you're rationalizing it like your god is instructing you to do that. Like any author who is upset that you are twisting their work and making it say something it doesn't has no right to complain, because by golly, your god gave you permission.

    I have to ask. If someone took the Book of Mormon and used Story Surgeon on it, and made a spoofy version that they found hilarious, one that twisted it and made it blasphemous... Would that make you happy? Because I guarantee that if you push this into the world, someone is going to do it. With your holy text, and with everyone else's. I know I'm guessing here, but my guess is that someone doing that would make a Mormon upset.

    If that would upset a Mormon, then how is an author supposed to feel, when they pour their heart and soul into something, only to have it tamed and blunted, and twisted to mean things they didn't want? I am not yet an author, but I'm working very hard to be one someday. And when my books are out there, I sincerely hope that if your choice is between not reading my books or mutilating it to suit your purposes, I hope that I don't see a single cent out of your pocket. You should read other things, and not inflict yourself on the rest of us.

    1. Thanks Tanya, for your reply. You're probably right that with this technology someone will probably desecrate the Book of Mormon. (if they haven't already) it's interesting you should bring that up, because I talked about how the Bible has been changed so often by so many people. You should check out the post right after this one and let me know if that helps you understand my position. I'm not in this to make author's mad. I like authors. They make some of my favorite things. :)

  7. Okay, there are some books in which the content found objectionable by some is probably superfluous. That isn't the kind of lit people include on school reading lists, though. This content was written and included for a reason, usually to teach the reader a greater sense of empathy towards others.

    In the case of The Color Purple, I think a lot of people who have requested bans haven't read the chapter that's usually cited, they just hear that it has sexual content and dismiss it. It's appropriately squicky and horrifying for being about child abuse, quite the opposite of erotic. If your concern wasn't that, but that the work depicts the existence of evil in the world and the viewpoint of a survivor, how is that in opposition to morality? Discussion of problems such as domestic violence is important for preventing or stopping it, or helping survivors. Many classrooms have at least one student who was abused themselves, that kid could be your kid's best friend. I know I would have been able to act with greater understanding and compassion as a young teenager, had I known more at the time. I still regret not being able to do more to help my friends. For that reason, I think young people should be exposed to potentially uncomfortable topics and talk about them.

  8. Thanks for your comment, Anon. I agree that sometimes kids could benefit from learning about and discussing hard topics. But I also believe it is the parent's right to determine when and how those topics are addressed.

  9. Full disclosure: I'm a Christian, raised by Christian parents. I am also adamantly against censoring.

    I can see why people would find your use for the app (censorship) to be a good idea. I know people in my church who would gladly buy it. But there are a few things about it that sit really uneasily with me:

    1) The only time my parents did anything like censoring for my sister and me was during the anti-Harry Potter mania of 2000. My sister's teacher was reading it to her 2nd grade class, and my mother was aware of all the anti-Christian hype about the book. So she read it. In reading it, she realized the content wasn't questionable at all, handed the book off to me (a 6th grader) and my sister without any more qualms, and NEVER censored our reading again.

    When I was in late middle school and had read all of my mom's inspirational books, I picked up a Harlequin romance, not knowing what it was. I was not ready or prepared for the explicit content. When I got to it, I skimmed until it was over and finished the story. I handed it back to my mom, who didn't know I was reading it, and told her there were parts I skipped.

    I think that kids are good censors on their own. They know what they're ready for. Things they're not ready for either make them uncomfortable, bored, or grossed out, and they set the books down. This was ALWAYS true for me as a kid.

    2) Your claim on the kickstarter is that it's fan fiction on steriods. It's not. It's censorship on steroids. I am part of a fan fiction community. I don't know a single person over the age of 16 or so (as a random marker) that doesn't have at least one Mature-rated story. I do - it's about domestic violence. But my M-rated story wouldn't be useful in your app. It involves a secondary character's childhood and parents, so it wouldn't be written in your surgeon.

    What the surgeon does allow for, especially with annotations and whatnot, is ADDED explicit content. Going back to Harry Potter, because I know that fandom best, there is a scene where Remus Lupin and Sirius Black lock eyes for something like 40 lines of the book. Fan fiction authors use that 40-line stare as proof that a relationship between the two of them is canon. One annotation later, and you can have a flashback to an explicit scene between the two of them.

    Someone has already gone through the "best" quotes for changing "wand" to "willy." Your app is IDEAL for that. A walk in the forest between Harry and Hermione could become a romp in the forest.

    3) As an author - a Christian author whose books have swear words in them, and whose fan fiction hinted at pre-marital sex (never explicitly, but still), I would be offended if someone changed all the d-words to "darn." As a Christian, I know I have to think through my language very carefully. And when I swear in my books, I mean it. They're harsh words for a reason. They add a dynamic that can't be achieved with a "gosh darn it" (although that's one full one I'd never use).

    Plus I wouldn't like the other potential of your app - see my point 2 - being used on my book in the least.

    4) Along those lines, we live in a fallen world, and we write stories about a fallen world. Without the Fall, there's no conflict. Without conflict, there's no story. In order to show the need for redemption, you must actually show the need for redemption. This is where The Color Purple comes to mind for me. At my Christian liberal arts school, I took a "modern fiction" class. From a Quaker professor. And all but one of the books we read had a rape scene. Why? These books showed the character of our fallen world and our need for a savior. And they also happened to be really good books.

  10. Thanks Rochelle for that fresh perspective. I can see how (even with safeguards in place) people would probably figure out how to make a book even more inappropriate for children.
    This is one of the reasons why I've merged my company with PureMedia, who are focusing on hiding specific content rather than letting readers add their own. You should check them out.

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