Friday, April 25, 2014

In a World of Bullshit, This Is Some Egregious Bullshit

Via Scott McLemee and Corey Robin, I learn that Lawrence & Wishart, the publishers of the collected works of Marx and Engels, have issued takedown notice to the Marxist Internet Archive to remove all the material that L & W have copyright on.  Which apparently they're going to do -- on May Day, appropriately enough.

As Scott points out, its not clear that this assertion of its property rights is going to earn L & W any money:
Somehow it has not occurred to Lawrence & Wishart that, by enlarging the pool of people aware of and reading the Collected Works, the archive is actually expanding the audience (and potential market) for L & W’s books, including the somewhat pricey MECW volumes themselves, available only in hardback at $25-50 per volume. ... If Lawrence & Wishart still considers itself a socialist institution, its treatment of the Archive is uncomradely at best, and arguably much worse; while if the press is now purely a capitalist enterprise, its behavior is merely stupid.
The probability that copyright infringements can increase the income of copyright-holders has been mentioned on this blog before. If you take five minutes to think about who the market is for the collected work of Marx and Engels, it'll be clear that that the existence of the Marxist Internet Archive is probably not cutting into it.

But beyond the pure stupidity of this, there's the ideological stupidity.

I'm on an email list about teaching. The issue was raised recently, the list is a space for people to talk about what they do in the classroom, what works, what doesn't, to vent about what pisses them off. It won't work if stuff gets shared outside the list. Which, I totally agree! But what struck me, the request not to disseminate things people say on the list elsewhere, it wasn't phrased in terms of privacy or professional courtesy, it was about respecting people's intellectual property. That is how ideology happens.

L & W have put up response to being called out on this. We are, they say
not a capitalist organisation engaged in profit-seeking or capital accumulation, but a direct legatee of the Communist/Eurocommunist tradition in the UK, having been at one time the publishing house of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Today it survives on a shoestring, while continuing to develop and support new critical political work by publishing a wide range of books and journals. 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...
In other words, it’s ok for us to use the power of the state to prevent people from reading Marx because we are Good Communists and we are going to do something awesome with whatever rents we can squeeze out of our copyrights. Raskolnikov had nothing on these guys.

Besides, they say, it's so unfaaaaaair to ask them not to steal every penny they can get their fingers on. If you were real radicals, you'd respect the sacred rights of Property.
In asking L&W to surrender copyrights in this particular edition of the works of Marx & Engels, the Marxist Internet Archives and their supporters are asking that L&W, one of the few remaining independent radical publishers in the UK, should commit institutional suicide. 
I guess there's some dramatic irony in seeing Marx's publishers engaged in this kind of primitive accumulation. But seriously, this is some egregious bullshit.

Cases like this bring out the black-is-white language of IP piracy. Here we have a group of people engaged in ongoing economic activity -- an ongoing sharing of knowledge -- and then an outsider arrives and tells them to stop what they're doing on threat of violence, unless they pay up. Wouldn't the pirates in this case be that outsiders? Wouldn't the pirates be the ones using the threat of violence to disrupt an ongoing sharing of  in order to appropriate a little booty? — which, as Scott points out, may not even be enough to defray the costs of their pillaging expedition.

L & W's statement amounts to: “it’s ok for us to use the power of the state to prevent people from reading Marx because we are Good Communists and we are going to do something awesome with whatever rents we can squeeze out of our copyrights.” Raskolnikov had nothing on these guys.


  1. Did Marx, in his times, ask money from his writings? I guess he did, as he was a journalist.

    They are not asking money on Marx's works, but on a specific translation of Marx's works. If someone else wants to translate those again (or also rewrite their translation whit different words, like 'work' instead of 'labor') he or she can, and then post the stuff on the net.

    I also think that copyright is a poor law, and that it should be reformed, but presently there is no other way to pay for a lot of work. What is the other option? Government subsidies? This has a lot of problems, and anyway the subsidies are not yet here.

    Also, your mailing list is likely BSitting when it speaks of 'intellectual property' because not everything is copyrightable, but just stuff with a certain amount of intellectual originality (to be determined by the judge). In general translations are supposed by law to have this originality.

    Also, this comment is protected by intellectual property, and everybody who reads it owes me 1$.

    1. And I say this as someone who makes often use of the Marxist Internet Archive, so this story saddens me a lot.

  2. There is a sad irony that a classic criticism of Marxism is that it leads to just such self-serving and ultimately counterproductive bureaucratic obstruction. The book company staff just want to preserve their jobs at the book company. They don't care much if no one gets to learn about Marxism.

    I can remember a TV program about Cuba where many houses were collapsing due to lack of repair causing great danger. People put wooden props in their houses to try and prevent collapse and lived in fear. The whole focus of the government was on preventing commercial (black market) house repair. No effort was put into government mediated house repair. It was all about maintaining power for the state housing authority and that power was preserved by eliminating rivals by dictat whilst not caring that houses were collapsing killing the occupants.

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