April 28, 2014

Sorry, internet, but there’s no problem with asserting copyright over translations of Marx


Nobody ever uses a photo of Engels. Poor guy, he tried so hard with that beard.

Nobody ever uses a photo of Engels. Poor guy, he tried so hard with that beard.

A radical British publisher is enforcing their copyright over the Collected Works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The internet commentariat, predictably, finds this unjust and ironic. It’s neither. Sorry, internet, but it’s time to turn off the hypocrisy klaxons.

Lawrence and Wishart is an independent publisher, founded in 1936 as an outgrowth of the Communist Party of Great Britain‘s publishing venture. They’ve published Hobsbawm, Isherwood, Auden, Gramsci, Stuart Hall and—at issue here—plenty of Marx. Beginning in 1975, L&W began publishing the Collected Works of Marx and Engels. The collection runs to fifty volumes, many of them nearly a thousand pages, making it the most complete available edition of these works not only in English, but in any language. Importantly, much of the material was translated anew and for the first time for these volumes.

Enter marxists.org, a vast online repository of material by authors of every rosy hue. Volunteers scan books to be posted on the site including, about ten years ago, the first ten volumes of the L&W Collected Works. According to reports, L&W permitted this, until this month. The publisher got in touch with the administrators of marxists.org, and asked them to take down those ten volumes.

The website is complying but—in large part because of the seeming hypocrisy of the move—there’s been something of an outcry. Cory Doctorow posted about it at BoingBoing, Andrew Leonard mustered a misguided chortle at Salon. Even the damned Cato Institute blogged about it, but then I imagine those guys have a running google alert for “marx intellectual property infighting gloat fodder.”

Pubishers, including Melville House, send out takedown notices all the time. It’s generally unremarkable. Why the attention this time? Of course, Marxist infighting always makes for a good show, but many responses seem to be based on one confusion and one misalignment of priorities.

First, it is important to note that though the original writing of Marx and Engels is in the public domain, these translations are not. Older translations exist, and thus there are many editions available offline and on of, for instance Capital and the Communist Manifesto, but the L&W claim to copyright is valid. That is not disputed by marxists.org. Many on the internet, including Doctorow, take issue with the terms of copyright law in general, and that informs their ire here.

Second, the main thrust of objection/bemused chortling is that it behooves L&W to make these translations freely available; that to protect copyright of them is against the spirit of Marxism and harmful to the cause. There’s much to be said about intellectual property in Marxist thought, preferably by better readers of Marx than Andrew Leonard, but the dispute is handily illustrated in statements by the marxists.org collective and L&W.

In their statement on the furor, the publishers wrote:

L&W is not a capitalist organisation engaged in profit-seeking or capital accumulation. … It makes no profits other than those required to pay a small wage to its very small and overworked staff, investing the vast majority of its returns in radical publishing projects, including an extensive and costly (to L&W) programme of free e-books. 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. Without the income derived its copyright in these works, L&W would not exist.

To them it is an issue of creating a living for their staff.

In a response, the marxists.org collective wrote:

These writings, the translations of which were paid for by L&W, International Publishers and the state supported Progress Publishers, do in fact belong, politically, to the world and not an institution; not in a legal sense, but in moral and political senses. … We believe that yes, this is more important than the institutional prerogatives of one publishing house.

The collective seems to be claiming that once a publisher has recovered the initial cost of a book’s publication, and if that book is important enough, it should become fair game. It’s a strong point, though based more on how publishing could work under communism than what’s possible now.

At present, even radical publishers need to take money from the last book—whether or not the Soviets paid for initial translations—in order to pay the next book’s copyeditors, so that those copyeditors can buy food for their many many cats. (Copyeditors love cats.) L&W is asking, essentially, “How’re we going to feed the copyeditor’s cats?” The collective would like to disseminate these works precisely to help everyone figure that out. Or, not those specific cats. Other cats. Future cats. They’d like to feed those.

As with every rhetorical dust-up since time immemorial, both sides know themselves to be the wronged party and the solution—again, as always—would seem to be for everyone to hike down to their local library.


Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.