The volunteers working on the Marxists Internet Archive (MIA) were surprised to receive a message from publishers Lawrence & Wishart on 22 April.
They were asking us to remove all material from the Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW) from our website by 30 April.
We were particularly surprised because nine years ago we’d agreed we wouldn’t put any new MECW material online but they would allow us to keep the stuff from the first ten volumes online.
The background seems to be that Lawrence & Wishart received a proposal about how to capitalise on their copyright. They want to make the MECW available to academic libraries in return for payment.
We understand that small radical publishers face challenges in today’s globalised economy, but we feel that they have been badly advised. The proposal shows little understanding of the way the internet works.
In particular, we object to these particular writings being reserved for academia.
They show Marx’s and Engels’s development towards a Marxist understanding of the world.
Lawrence & Wishart has the copyright on this material jointly with International Publishers (New York) and the now defunct Progress Publishers (Moscow). That has never been in dispute.
Though I would point out that most of the translation work for the volumes in question was carried out while the project was still sponsored by the Soviet government.
It’s been clear from the start that we’d do as they asked. We reject the concept of intellectual property rights in principle. But we also recognise the need for living writers to benefit from the fruits of their labour.
So in practice we try to avoid conflicts with publishers and writers’ estates about copyright.
In this particular case, it wouldn’t be in our interests to carry arguments about intellectual property rights into the bourgeois courts.
But we couldn’t just pull the 1,600+ documents without comment, so we placed a factual notice on our main page and a statement on Facebook explaining what was going to happen on the eve of May Day.
As we half expected all hell broke loose. While some users appealed to us to challenge bourgeois notions of intellectual property, most accepted that we’d have to accede to the demands.
But they were angry and directed this anger against Lawrence & Wishart. Supporters of MIA organised a number of online petitions. Lawrence & Wishart were somewhat taken aback by the angry reaction.
They are now considering ways of allowing access to at least some of these writings on a wider basis. We await their proposals.
Our experience and that of a number of radical publishers is that the presence of a text in HTML format on the internet doesn’t necessarily result in fewer sales.
It can lead to more sales as people who’d never have seen the book in a library or bookshop become aware of it and some want to buy a hard copy.
One of the ways we finance the MIA is by selling books of texts we’ve collected.
We’re now looking into ways of replacing the texts removed—either by using non-copyright translations or by adding new translations provided by our volunteers and supporters.
We remain committed to making the widest range of Marxist material possible available to the working class and socialist movements worldwide.
Come and visit us at www.marxists.org