[Marxism] Readers of Marx and Engels Decry Publisher’s Assertion of Copyright - Research - The Chronicle of Higher Education
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Tue Apr 29 07:01:40 MDT 2014
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By Jennifer Howard
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 Change.org 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published and unpublished articles, letters, and other writings.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
"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."
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