Dirty Apps? How Magazines Are Handling Apple's Erratic Censorship

Magazine publishers have embraced the iPad app as the technology that will allow them to survive, more or less intact, in the digital age. But that "more or less" is key, since Apple (AAPL) chairman Steve Jobs has made it clear he doesn't want apps sold in the iTunes store to feature pornography, nudity or other adult content -- material that's part of some pretty major publications.

Among the biggest of these is Playboy, which since 1953 has blended award-winning fiction and journalism with erotic photography and cartoons. Playboy's response to Jobs's no-porn fatwa is, at least for now, acquiescence. The magazine just released an iPad app that "gives you much but not all of the current August issue," according to Min Online. The missing parts? You guessed it: "most of the pictorials and cartoons as well as anything more than attractive head shots of its Playmate of the Month." Despite the omissions, a copy of the iPad version costs $4.99, the same as an uncensored print issue.

But you don't have to be Playboy to be affected by the porn ban. Nudity is a fixture of many fashion-forward magazines, and an occasional presence in highbrow reads like The New Yorker (whose editor, David Remnick, has said he will never let Apple affect what he publishes) to New York (whose Lindsay Lohan-as-Marilyn Monroe spread would surely give Apple's censors the sweats).

The new issue of W, for instance, features "a bare-breasted model donning jewels," according to The New York Times -- and that's hardly the most risque thing the Conde Nast title has ever published. Since W's iPad app is set to debut in February, I asked the magazine's new editor, Stefano Tonchi, how he plans to get around the censorship. He responded via a spokeswoman, who told me, "W's iPad launch is not slated until Spring 2011. When we get a bit closer to the launch date we will certainly address that issue, but for now we really have nothing to discuss."

Indeed, it's possibly there won't be anything to discuss by then. While Apple says it hasn't changed its policies, it has already softened its position to suit at least one major media company: News Corp. (NWS), whose British tabloid The Sun runs a daily photo of a topless model, known as the Page 3 Girl. Apple initially rejected The Sun's app, only to accept it a few weeks later without much explanation.

Meanwhile, U.S. publishers continue to push the limits of what Apple will allow. Cosmopolitan magazine's app walks the line with cartoon renderings of naked people in coitus (pictured right) and detailed anatomical descriptions of what goes where. I asked John Loughlin, executive vice president at Hearst Magazines, which publishes Cosmo, how the app had made it past Apple's censors. Loughlin pointed out that the app is clearly listed as being for users 17 and up and that it comes with password protection, adding, "We're very happy they haven't dinged it."

Very meta disclosure: I recently wrote an article for Playboy about Apple's censorship of apps. It has not yet been published.