OK, Apple Didn't Ban A Comic. But It Created The Climate For Censorship

Reports yesterday that Apple had inserted itself into the world of publishing censorship have turned out to be completely inaccurate. Apple didn't ban the sale of a comic; the comic's distributor app did — though apparently only to pre-empt the Apple ban it anticipated.

The kerfuffle centered on the banning of the sale of issue 12 of Image Comic's Saga comic series within the iOS version of ComiXology's app.

On Tuesday, the creator of the series, Brian K. Vaughan, released a statement indicating that Apple would be banning sales of Saga #12 in the popular ComiXology app and any other third-party comic app due to depicted sexual scenes.

"Unfortunately, because of two postage stamp-sized images of gay sex, Apple is banning tomorrow’s SAGA #12 from being sold through any iOS apps," Vaughan said in a statement posted at Image.

News of this move stirred a lot of observers on the Internet, including me, to lambast Apple for blocking the sale of third-party material when Apple offers the exact same comic directly within its own iBook app. This would have been the first time Apple curated independent media sold through an app, even though, according to the App Store Review Guidelines, independent books and music are not supposed to be curated:

We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical App. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store.

The whole thing seemed odd when I first posted about it yesterday, but the whole thing was completely wrong, and my story incorrect: it turns out Apple had absolutely nothing to do with blocking Saga #12… it was all on ComiXology.

"As a partner of Apple, we have an obligation to respect its policies for apps and the books offered in apps. Based on our understanding of those policies, we believed that Saga #12 could not be made available in our app, and so we did not release it today," ComiXology CEO David Steinberger blogged yesterday afternoon.

"Given this, it should be clear that Apple did not reject Saga #12," he emphasized.

The comic, which anyone could still purchase on ComiXology's web site and then sync to an iOS device, was restored to the in-app catalog yesterday.

ComiXology's move to preemptively block the sale was their way of anticipating a decision from Apple that would have done the same thing later. But Apple, ComiXology learned, had no intention of censoring the comic issue.

Because the Saga series is intended for mature readers and has depicted graphic scenes of violence and sex before, many speculated that ComiXology (and before, inaccurately, Apple) has an issue with the portrayal of same-sex activities in two panels of Saga #12. This is a charge Steinberger denies.

"We did not interpret the content in question as involving any particular sexual orientation, and frankly that would have been a completely irrelevant consideration under any circumstance," Steinberger wrote.

It is still not entirely clear what it was about Saga #12 that made it stand out as a potential problem, but one thing is clear: content distributors like ComiXology and Apple definitely need to get their acts together.

ComiXology can be accused of having an overabundance of caution, but there was something in the Apple policies that faked them out. Perhaps Apple, which has not publicly commented on this matter, could come out with clearer policies on content, if that is indeed the problem.

Hopefully, the policy will continue to be what it seems: that for all of the app content that Apple does curate, they have to date not curated content that's independent of apps.

This can be confusing, because it means that publishers like Playboy will have to keep the naughty stuff to itself within its own Newsstand app, but third-party movies, books and music with explicit material can still be sold through apps, including Apple's.

For this particular incident, Apple is off the hook. But somewhere there was a miscommunication, which needs to be fixed.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock