Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Twenty-First Century Bowdlers

Llewelyn Joseph Gibbons, University of Toledo College of Law, has published "Digital Bowdlering: Removing the Naughty Bytes." It will appear in the 2005 volume of the Michigan State Law Review. It is also available via SSRN. Here is the abstract.

During the Victorian era, the prevailing delicacy of the age inspired Dr. Thomas Bowdler and his sister to edit Shakespeare's plays to make them suitable for 'family reading'. All off-color jokes and sexual matter were removed. The word bowdlerize entered the language as a synonym for militant prudery. Luckily for Dr. Bowdler and his sister, the works of Shakespeare were clearly in the public domain. The modern Dr. Bowdlers and their accomplices do not share Dr. Bowdler's luck, however. When they abridge modern digital works to remove content that is offensive to the conscience of their constituencies, their reward for this public service is allegations of, and possible liability for, copyright infringement. Other modern Bowdlers modify software by deleting portions of code to add new capabilities. These deletions are often only shocking to the artistic license or the pocketbook of the copyright owner. Yet, these deletions convey significant advantages to the user or consumer of bowdlerized works. These technologies not only support militant prudery, but they also may add new functionality and capabilities that expand consumer choice. The legal rights being asserted by copyright owners represent a common threat to the use of copyrighted works in the private sphere. Digital bowdlerization makes available works inherent in cultural literacy to all, regardless of age or delicacy of conscience.

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