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Lawrence & Wishart & the Marxists Internet Archive

April 26, 2014

So, in case anyone is still around from time to time: I’m not able to blog in any meaningful way (as I assume people have noticed…), but just had to come online to say something about the takedown notice issued to the Marxists Internet Archive by Lawrence and Wishart, publishers of, among other things, the Marx and Engels Collected Works.

The MIA has been doing tireless, incredibly useful, work for many years converting existing print content into well-edited, searchable, and linkable online form. They have, in the process, helped to sustain and cultivate a “market”, if we must use this term, for the works of Marx, Engels and other figures in Marxist thought, very broadly defined. Among the work they have been doing is the transcription of a portion of the works otherwise only available in the MECW – and therefore otherwise only accessible for those with access to major institutional libraries. Even for those who do have such access, their volunteer labour has added significant value to the original print editions by transforming them into readily searchable form, making certain kinds of research much more viable and infinitely more efficient than they would be with only the print texts in the world.

According to a comment on Crooked Timber by Einde O’Callaghan, for an extended period the MIA had an informal agreeement with Lawrence and Wishart, along the following lines:

I work on the MIA and I’d like to clarify a couple of things:
1. What we”ve been asked to take down are the texts from the first 10 volumes of the MECW that are under copyright, i.e. those texts that were translated under the auspices of L&W, International Publishers of NY and Pioneer of Moscow.
2. The major works will still be available – including Capital – as the copyrights on the translations have long expired.
3. We didn’t get a letter from solicitors – we got a request from the company, admittedly with the hint that if we didn’t comply a solicitor’s letter would follow.
4. We were aware of the copyright status but had an agreement that they could stay as long as we didn’t add any more volumes. We abided by this agreement.
5. The agreement was subject to the agreement of all parties concerned and could be terminated by any of the three publishers.
6. L&W have now made use of their option to cancel – and we will respect their request.
7. We hope that at some stage L&W will reconsider their decision.
8. We will continue to make the widest range of Marxist and related materials possible available free of charge on the Internet.
9. We are gratified by the wide support we have received since we had to make this regrettable announcement.

Based on Lawrence & Wishart’s statement, this informal agreement seemed to have been rescinded because L&W now intend to sell an online version of the MECW to institutional libraries, and are presumably fearful that a freely-available online version of portions of their new archive would provide a disincentive for institutional libraries to purchase their new offering.

Lawrence and Wishart are now feeling a bit bruised by the online reaction. Their recent statement says “Over the last couple of days Lawrence & Wishart has been subject to campaign of online abuse because we have asked for our copyright on the scholarly edition of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels to be respected.” (Just as a kindly sidenote, solely in concern for the wellbeing of the people involved: it may not be promising for your future in radical political contestation, if you quail at electrons broadcast in your general direction…) They go on to express incredulity at the “The panic being spread to the effect that L&W is ‘claiming copyright’ for the entirety of Marx and Engels’ output is baseless, slanderous and largely motivated by political sectarianism from groups and individuals who have never been friendly to L&W.” To be fair, they are not claiming copyright – if only because they cannot, original works being out of copyright, and some other translations being out of copyright, or held by other copyright holders – over every work by Marx and Engels. Only over the specific translations included in their specific collection – which runs fifty volumes of works, including many difficult to obtain in English in other ways…

They go on to defend the move by saying that, in an electronic form available to those with institutional library affiliations, their new digital edition 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”. They call this “a model of commons that reimburses publishers, authors and translators for the work that has gone into creating a book or series of books”.

I need to write more on the current debates over the rents claimed by producers of creative content, and whether and to what extent the figures in this list – authors, translators, and publishers – should be regarded as comparable categories, particularly in an era of digital distribution. But for the moment let me just say that there’s a real irony here to a press presenting itself as gracious for placing its work for sale in a form in which some fraction of population who didn’t pay personally for the work, might still be able to access it, when squaring off against the real-world example of an actual bona fide commons, maintained by volunteers, geared toward the production of an actual intellectual common resource. No one is going to see the pallid “public sphere” of academic libraries as anything but an enclosure move, in this context. To note that public funds might be used for this purpose is particularly weird, since the fact that, in some micrological way, the whole of one public might be taxed to pay for a thing, doesn’t really change the fact that the whole of that public will not have access to the thing they have now been compelled to pay for (in this model)… Of course Lawrence and Wishart has every legal right to do this – their intellectual property has already been “enclosed” by capitalist property rights, and so they can control its sale and general distribution by law. But to try to frame this as placing their work into the ‘commons’ is ludicrous.

It doesn’t help that Lawrence and Wishart simply don’t want to address the intrinsically capitalist nature of their move. They simply can’t be capitalist – the concept seems ridiculous – because they don’t think of themselves that way. And, anyway, shouldn’t a capitalist be better paid than they are? (They might consult some of the writings in their own collection for further guidance here…)

They then raise some serious points about the general proletarian character of artistic and creative production – the difficulties these professions are facing because it is now difficult to enforce rents on past production via copyright provisions. These are potentially serious questions, and I’ll hopefully write on them in another context soon. These points, however, are particularly jarring when they are faced directly off against a cadre of volunteers, who have laboured every bit as hard as transcribers, editors and publishers of intellectual content, who are operating as part of a genuine intellectual commons. It simply is not the case – with current technology – that publication necessarily requires the kinds of enclosure that provided the economic model for it in the past. These economic models have therefore become very difficult to defend, particularly in a radical political context, but even in much more mainstream spaces. To make a crass Marxist gesture here: the superstructure is no longer supported by the base.

The unfolding institutional transformation will result in genuine losses. It also offers some creative possibilities for new institution building – some of which could point in emancipatory directions. In the short term, however, this transformation is also resulting in a widespread assertion of economic privilege (and, yes, even those paid poorly relative to their expectations may possess economic privilege), in an attempt to hold onto exclusionary forms of property right that were in the past secure. This dynamic is much broader than Lawrence and Wishart – their arguments are just variations of positions being put forward in many locations now, as part of a much more general political contestation over the potential social implications of technological and economic transformation.

But on the practical question: Lawrence and Wishart have stated that giving up their copyright would be “institutional suicide” – that the sales of this collection of works in particular are what enable them to continue functioning as a press, providing an incubator for other, more recent, less monetisable, radical works. There are some empirical questions here. The first is whether the presence of an alternative version of their works on MIA will actually harm their ability to sell the digital version of their archive to institutional libraries. If there is still substantial content not available in the free and genuinely public archive, there is still a value for institutional libraries to purchase the entire collection, since their purpose would be to enable more detailed scholarly investigation. The existing works on MIA leave out a great deal of the collection: do they really hurt the market? Or do they in fact increase the market, by serving as a teaser of what would be available if someone had access to the whole thing? What is more likely to increase the interest in, and demand for, these kinds of works? It might well be a licensing arrangement explicitly allowing the availability of a selected portion of the collection would be of financial benefit to the press…

All of this may be irrelevant if Lawrence and Wishart are contracting with a restrictive third party to issue their digital edition – it may be someone else’s requirements for exclusivity they are wrestling with. From their statement, it sounds as though they are at the negotiation stage with some distributor, so they know the requirements they will be facing. I wonder how well these will be negotiated, for the quasi-commons they are promising to create. My experience with other digital editions suggests high risk for poor formatting, sluggish searching, poor reading experience, and extensive restrictions on excerpting, printing, etc.: things end-users don’t currently experience with the excellent MIA digital versions of the works. I wonder if any thought might have been given to a distribution solution involving a certain actual, existing commons that might have some experience putting these kinds of works online – whether alternative mechanisms for funding such a solution might have been considered, rather than going with an existing commercial distributor?

Significant structural transformations are unfolding in these areas. There is always potential when this happens – and there is always also the great default rut of falling into an institutional response that does nothing but favour existing powerful institutions within the capitalist economy. A radical press taking its stand on the sacred rights of private property looks, to me, to be helping to water the field for arguments that will not help radical causes going forward. Defending the right to be a (very small, very vulnerable) micro-capitalist is not going to provide a stable basis for future forms of radical intellectual or creative production. It could be time to search for a more creative solution.

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  1. An ironic anecdote from personal experience that corresponds to some of the points you make above: A week before the take-down notice appeared on MIA I had just purchased a volume of the MECW. I was enticed to purchase it because I read parts of it on the MIA. I never would have bought the book had I not been able to peruse it on MIA first. MECW is a massive collection and there is no easy way to know what contents are in what volumes, to examine the table of contents, or peruse a text, except for the via the MIA. Amazon does not have that information for all of the volumes. The presence of the MECW on MIA can only be good for L&W. They are clearly operating in an outdated paradigm and don’t understand that MIA was free advertising for them.

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