Not Even Radical Communist Literature Is Immune to Copyright Battles

All 50 volumes of the Marx and Engels Collected Works (MECW) were removed from the Marxists Internet Archive at the request of their publisher.

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May 2 2014, 5:20pm
Image: Shutterstock

On the eve of May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, all 50 volumes of the Marx and Engels Collected Works (MECW) were removed from the Marxists Internet Archive at Marxists.org at the request of the publisher, Lawrence & Wishart, igniting the cybertariat’s fury. The publisher's reasoning? The copyright was being infringed, and they were defending their right to recoup their investment in the communist works they published.

The Marxists Internet Archive (MIA) is a vast, polylingual, and ever-growing resource of Marxist literature, available for free to anyone with an internet connection. The MECW, a collection of letters, essays, and unpublished manuscripts by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, was available in the Archive for nine years. 

On April 23rd, a notice appeared on the MIA main page indicating that Lawrence & Wishart’s lawyers had, as the copyright holders, requested that the Works be taken down. Adding insult to injury, the MECW was to be deleted from the Archive on April 30th, the eve of May Day—a traditional day of socialist worker solidarity. As you might imagine, this didn’t go over well with Marxists.org’s usual crowd.

Shortly after the notice was posted, a Change.org petition urging Lawrence & Wishart to allow the MECW to be distributed online for free began circulating and quickly reached 5,000 signatures. Ammar Aziz, the author of the petition, didn’t mince words. “You cannot privatize their writings—they are the collective property of the people they wrote for. Privatization of Marx and Engels' writings is like getting a trademark for the words 'socialism' or ‘communism.'”

The publisher responded to what they said was a “campaign of online abuse” with a statement that laid out their reasoning for invoking their copyright to the MECW. “Without L&W and the work which its employees have invested over many years, the full collected works of Marx and Engels in English would not exist,” the publisher said. “Without the income derived [from] its copyright in these works, L&W would not exist.”

It does seem as though the petition was a little off base. This isn’t an issue of privatizing something that was once public, as Lawrence & Wishart has held the copyright to the MECW since it was first printed in 1975. David Walters, writing on behalf of Marxists.org, released a response to the publisher’s statement and echoed this sentiment. “The money spent on publishing should be recovered. We have no disagreement on this. We even defend this and advocate it. But this is not what is at question here.”

The disagreement here is political, not legal, according to Walters. The real sticking point is that the collected works of Marx and Engels are an important part of the intellectual heritage of the socialist tradition, and should be available to the masses.

“The point of any communist publishing house, which the MIA lives up to, is to assure the widest distribution of these works, not, again, to restrict them,” Walters wrote. “That is the opposite of communist publishing.”

Though Lawrence & Wishart plans to make the MECW digitally available to university libraries—which they claim is a kind of public access—Walters said that this is not nearly good enough. “The MIA existed from the get-go because we wanted to open up the privileged, access-only libraries at universities,” Walters said in his statement. “It is not public access. This is the opposite of the general trend toward making things available for free on the Internet.”

An update posted today by L&W suggests that the publisher will shoot for a compromise:

We have been surprised at the recent online response to our efforts to consolidate distribution for the Collected Works of Marx Engels – though of course we are very pleased that so many people are so interested in the work. Because of the strength of feeling, we are considering what we can do to meet the desire for greater access, and will make a further statement when we have decided a course of action.

As of today, the MECW remains scrubbed from the Marxists Internet Archive, though it is available for free elsewhere on the internet.