Readers of Marx and Engels Decry Publisher’s Assertion of Copyright

Rue des Archives / The Granger Collection

The best-known works of Karl Marx are widely available and in the public domain. But lesser writings, including unpublished articles and letters, in good translations aren't so easily found outside of research libraries—and an online archive.
April 29, 2014

In a capitalist world, even a radical publishing house devoted to the works of socialist thinkers has to make money to survive. That’s the argument being used by Lawrence & Wishart, a London-based publisher, to explain why it has asked the Marxists Internet Archive, a volunteer-run online collection of socialist writers’ works, to remove from the website copyrighted material from the publisher’s Marx Engels Collected Works by April 30.

The publisher says it wants to market a digital edition to libraries in order to keep itself in business. While the Marxists Internet Archive is not contesting the company’s right to enforce its copyright, news of its request set off an outcry from some observers and supporters of the archive.

"If Lawrence & Wishart still considers itself a socialist institution, its treatment of the archive is uncomradely at best, and arguably much worse; while if the press is now purely a capitalist enterprise, its behavior is merely stupid," wrote the columnist and critic Scott McLemee in an April 24 post on the Crooked Timber blog.

More than 4,000 people have now signed a petition on calling for an end to copyright on Marx and Engels’s work. "Privatization of Marx and Engels’ writings is like getting a trademark for the words ‘socialism’ or ‘communism,’" the petition says.

Compiled over a quarter-century beginning in 1975, the 50-volume Collected Works includes English translations of not just blockbusters like The Communist Manifesto but also harder-to-find and less-familiar published and unpublished articles, letters, and other writings. Lawrence & Wishart jointly holds the copyright with two other publishing houses, International Publishers and Progress Publishers.

Plenty of Marx and Engels’s work is in the public domain. One doesn’t need to be a member of a privileged class—with access to a university library, for instance—to find freely available editions of Das Kapital.

"In this case, what is copyrighted is the specific translations, the considerable notes, etc.," said Betty Smith, president of International Publishers, in an email.

In response to its critics, Lawrence & Wishart posted a statement on its website assailing what it called a "campaign of online abuse" and defending its decision to enforce its copyright. It said that it "survives on a shoestring" and argued that its continued existence depends on its being able to derive income from its stake in the Collected Works.

"We are currently negotiating an agreement with a distributor that will offer a digital version of the Collected Works to university libraries worldwide," the publisher said. "This will have the effect of maintaining a public presence of the Works, in the public sphere of the academic library, paid for by public funds. This is a model of commons that reimburses publishers, authors, and translators for the work that has gone into creating a book or series of books."

The publisher defended its history and record as a radical publishing enterprise, suggesting that its critics should direct their anger elsewhere.

"We would suggest that if online activists wish to attack targets in the publishing industry who truly do derive huge profits from the exploitation of their workers and from catalogues filled with radical political thought, then there are far-more-appropriate targets for them to direct their anger towards than a tiny British publishing house with no shareholders and a small, ill-paid staff," it said.

‘Simple Factual Notice’

Andy Blunden has been part of the volunteer collective that runs the nonprofit Marxists Internet Archive for about 15 years. He told The Chronicle that he was authorized to speak for the group, and that it does not contest Lawrence & Wishart’s copyright on the material at stake—some 1,662 files, "really quite a small percentage" of everything in the Collected Works, he said. (It’s also a tiny fraction of the archive’s total contents, which include the writings of hundreds of authors in dozens of languages.)

According to him, the archive has not been a party to the criticism lobbed at the publisher. "We put a simple factual notice on our main page, and we put that on our Facebook page," Mr. Blunden said. "We feel that it’s improper of us to go out and agitate and say bad things about Lawrence & Wishart. We’re trying to be quite restrained about this. It’s down to our readers, really, to defend us."

He said that the archive last had talks with Lawrence & Wishart around 2005, at which time the publisher agreed to let the archive continue to host the Collected Works material. But "it was always up to them at some point to call an end, which they did about a week ago," Mr. Blunden said.

While scholars and others with access to good research collections will still be able to make use of the entire Collected Works, Mr. Blunden said he worries about "the ordinary Joe" who lacks that kind of access, especially to lesser-known writings that help set Marx and Engels’s thinking in a broader context.

The Collected Works, he noted, were assembled during the years of the Soviet Union’s collapse. "To withdraw this material, even though it’s a small part of what’s getting read today, is in a sense to throw the understanding of Marxism back" decades—"to reduce it to that corpus of well-known works that have been quoted for a century," Mr. Blunden said. "The professors and the historians will be able to write learned articles about what Marx said, but the general population are going to be left back in 1975" in trying to understand Marx and Engels’s thinking.

The Marxists Internet Archive is heavily used by "a broad spectrum of people" around the world, according to Mr. Blunden. Before the recent flap, the site was getting a quarter of a million page views a day, he said.

Jonathan Sperber, a professor of history at the University of Missouri at Columbia and a noted expert on Karl Marx, called the archive "a useful resource" but said that the translations are a mixed bag. Serious scholars of Marx and Engels ought to be using the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe, which is "by far the most scholarly edition and prints all the material in the original language in which it was written," Mr. Sperber said by email. "For classroom use, there are plenty of cheap paperback editions of Marxist classics" and anthologies of the two thinkers’ works.

But Lawrence & Wishart’s decision could make it harder "for people at small colleges without good libraries, or who have no academic affiliation, and would like to study some of the less well-known and less easily accessible parts of Marx and Engels’s oeuvre," Mr. Sperber said.

He expressed some sympathy for Lawrence & Wishart. "Publishers in general have a hard enough time these days earning enough on books to keep publishing them," he said. "Small left-wing publishing houses find it more difficult than most."

Still, it’s "unfortunate that a left-wing publishing house would want to restrict access to the works of a major left-wing thinker to those affiliated with a university or college library that can afford to purchase L&W’s new digital edition," Mr. Sperber said. "Hegel, to name someone who was a big influence on Marx, once described a tragedy as ‘a conflict of two rights.’ That seems to sum up the situation."