Copyright strikes Marxists.org

(update: I’ve reworked a couple of paragraphs to reflect updates to this issue.)

It’s a pretty sad day when the copyright holders of the standard English edition of the collected words of Marx and Engels decides to start enforcing their property rights (more over at Crooked Timber). For years and years, marxists.org has been a model of outreach, providing a comprehensive collection of high-quality texts by Marx and Engels, open access and in multiple formats. Every social thinker should be blessed with such a site. 

Apparently nine years ago the publishers of the complete works of Marx and Engels (known as MECW) gave marxists.org permission to reproduce the first ten volumes of MECW on their website. They are now revoking it as part of their plan to market an on-line edition to university libraries. These files will be available until 30th April, or about four days from now. They can be found on the website, or on a couple of otherlinks. So if I were you, I’d get downloading. And while you’re waiting for that massive corpus of righteousness to trickle down the Internetz, why not sign the petition at change.org?

Lawrence & Wishart has published a reply to critics (and marxists.org has replied to the reply), in which they argue that little of the content of marxists.org will be affected by this change; that radical publishers have done this before and they are not therefore betraying their values; that many other editions of Marx and Engels will still be available; and that they need the revenue to keep their tiny, values-driven press afloat.

Its hard not to be sympathetic to a lot of these claims. But at the end of the day I still think Lawrence & Wishart have made the wrong decision. If only a small portion of the collected works are up at marxists.org, then why view this as competition? If most of Marx and Engels’s work is already available online open access, then why bank on selling a new digital edition that will cost more and offer only a little additional material?

I appreciate the need for presses to keep steady earners steady earning, but in this case I suspect that the uni libraries that will buy digital and paper copies of these books would do so regardless of what’s on marxists.org.

At the end of the day, this strategy of enclosure is just going to piss people off and won’t provide substantial additional income. Either the complete edition will stand on its own merits when compared to the public domain/pirated materials or it won’t.

It’s hard to tell small presses that they need to publish the next big thing rather than milk their backlist, but sadly I think that’s true in this case.

By the way, in case anyone was wondering, the pro-capitalist forces are doing well selling editions of Wealth of Nations which is in the public domain.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

3 thoughts on “Copyright strikes Marxists.org

  1. It would be best not to use the hackneyed term “at the end of the day”. Try “finally” or “ultimately” instead. Or any other word/phrase than the cable TV cliche.

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