Independent UK radical publisher Lawrence & Wishart has become the subject of a Change.org petition and a slew of online criticism over its decision to take its scholarly edition of the collected works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (MECW) off the Marxist Internet Archive, and out of the public domain. Currently the MIA hosts a notice on its front page, explaining the removal of the MECW and stating that it will continue to offer English translations of Marx and Engels from other sources.
The Change.org primary message reads as follows:
Allow the Marx-Engels Collected Works material to remain on the Marxist Internet Archive (MIA) website and in the public domain.
L&W has been very much aware of the reputational damage it’s incurred by doing this. So much so that it’s put down its complaints in writing and essentially launched a counter-polemic.
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. 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.
The MIA itself, however, takes a different view, and posts its own counter-statement at length:
The reaction of the “Marxist community” at large has been wholly negative to the actions — completely legal — by L&W, asking the Marxists Internet Archive to take down the L&W copyrighted material. We would have preferred they allow us to continue to keep them on line.
It also takes issue with L&W’s declaration that it is going to make the MECW available via access through university libraries:
We disagree. Removing them from generalized Internet access and bouncing the MECW ‘upstairs’ into the Academy is the opposite of “maintaining a public presence of the Works.” It restricts access to those having current academic status at a university that is subscribing to the service. This is the same as for readership of learned journals. It is not public access. This is the opposite of the general trend toward making things available for free on the Internet.
Wherever you stand on those arguments, the biggest argument against L&W’s decision seems to be practical. There are hosts of other editions of the works of Marx and Engels available online. Project Gutenberg alone hosts nine works by Marx and five by Engels. Furthermore, as the petition preamble states, “the MECW have become an essential part of the shared knowledge and resources of the international workers movement. We cannot take a step backward.”
It’s unlikely that L&W will be able to significantly improve its financial standing at all. And I don’t see any sign of it doing the other obvious thing it could have done – enlist all that sentiment for a Kickstarter or other financing arrangement to keep the MECW available online, and secure its own position. As it is, I suspect many present and future leftist authors will now give L&W a wide berth. The Change.org petition continues:
We fully appreciate the efforts and difficulties that running a small independent publishing house entails. But allowing free access to the MECW on the MIA website does not hinder sales. On the contrary, the publicity it provides increases them, and we would support any attempt to further improve this aspect.
The MIA may or may not be a graveyard of dead ideas, but it’s deeply regrettable from the broad perspective of open access and serious research to see a corpus like the MECW swept into the dustbin of history. Here’s hoping that L&W reconsiders.