Lawrence & Wishart vs. The Marxists Internet Archive: The Blindness of the Copyright Left

Lawrence & Wishart vs. The Marxists Internet Archive: The Blindness of the Copyright Left
Christian Fuchs

The publisher Lawrence & Wishart (L&W) has issued a takedown notice to the operators of the Marxists Internet Archive (MIA, http://www.marxists.org) in order to have them delete the online version of the copyrighted volumes of the Marx Engels-Collected Works (MECW) that L&W distributes and sells in 50 volumes. The basic argument of L&W is that the online version is ruining the company financially: The online version’s “[i]nfringement of this copyright [L&W’s copyright on MECW] has the effect of depriving a small radical publisher of the funds it needs to remain in existence“.

The MIA commented: “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. What L&W argues is truly a cognitive disconnect of major proportions. It also destroys the enhanced functionality which MIA gave to the MECW material, embedding it with the writings of other Marxists“.

The question is how viable L&W’s argument is. The online version does not contain page numbers, which is an incentive for scholars, institutions and libraries to also buy printed volumes. It is furthermore doubtful that more people will buy the (expensive) volumes priced at £50 each or £1500 as a set once the MIA has taken down the online version. The L&W argument misperceives the nature of digital information on the Internet that allows easy, quick and cheap distribution, copying and access. What is likely to have already happened is that thousands of users have made copies of the online edition for personal use and for further spreading it on the Internet. Takedown notices have the opposite effect of what they intend to bring about: they are likely to further help spreading the information whose distribution they want to hinder.

Let us have a look at MECW Volume 35 (Capital Vol. 1). It was published in 1996. 6 people seem to have been involved in the editorial project. After the publication of Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, Marx put efforts on writing a sequel that finally became Capital, Volume 1, and was delivered to the publisher in Hamburg by Marx in person in April 1867. So it is fair to assume that Marx at least put 20 000 hours of work into Capital, Volume 1. The L&W translation is based on the edition that Samuel Moore (1838-1911) and Edward Aveling (1849-1898) translated under the editorial leadership of Engels. We can assume that this translation took also up to 10 000 hours and Engels’ editorial work also some years, let’s say 5 000 hours. According to MECW’s editorial note, the edition is “based on the first English edition” by Moore/Aveling/Engels. It is unclear what “based” here actually means. If you compare some sample passages from MECW 35 to the original Moore/Aveling/Engels edition, then there are indications that they are quite identical (I used a sample of about 20 arbitrarily selected sentences that are all identical).

Putting together this edition, layouting and distributing it etc has taken some time, but the actual text we are reading has primarily been enabled by estimated 20 000 hours of Marx’s work, 10 000 hours of Moore and Aveling’s work and 5 000 hours of Engels’ work. Furthermore the editors of MECW Volume 35 write that they have copied translations of French, Greek, Italian and Latin quotes from Ben Fowkes’ 1976 Penguin translation.

MECW 35 is mainly the work of Marx, Engels, Moore and Aveling. L&W sells it for £18.99 in a special edition and for £50 in the MECW edition. Certainly for each sold volume one pays to a specific degree for the labour conducted by printers, L&W employees, etc. But who pays for the labour conducted by Marx, Engels, Moore and Aveling? L&W benefits from Marx, Engels, Moore and Aveling’s work without ever having paid them because they are dead. No single translation could be made without their original work. Claiming copyright is problematic because the labour involved is not just the new editorial and sales work, but first and foremost also the original work conducted by Marx and Engels. If we apply the copyright logic that L&W applies to the MIA to L&W itself, then one can only say that by selling MECW L&W exploits Marx, Engels, Moore and Aveling who cannot be paid for the revenue that L&W makes from their labour because they are dead. L&W is claiming copyright on works that were primarily produced by thousands of Marx and Engels’ intellectual working hours. The solution however is not to prohibit L&W to further sell these volumes or to prohibit MIA to provide Marx and Engels’ works online, but to respect the fact that Marx and Engels’ works are common goods and should be available as such. Claiming the MIA is stealing information from L&W is just as absurd and misplaced as claiming that L&W is stealing information from Marx and Engels because the whole idea of a copyright on Marx and Engels’ works is absurd.

Given these circumstances, it is idiosyncratic to suggest, as some observers have done, that the to date 1435 signees of the petition that asks L&W to allow MECW to be public domain should pay L&W or collect money for L&W. If anything is feasible, then it is organising resources for new online translations conducted as collaborative wiki project. Threatening and debating copyrights on Marx and Engels’ works is just a deflection of attention from a much more needed task – new translations. New translations? Why?

Take again Capital, Volume 1. The main translations used are MECW (=Moore/Aveling) and Penguin (Fawkes). Let’s take two example passages.

MEW 23, 558 + Urfassung von 1867, 521: Von diesen Widersprüchen abgesehn, würde ein direkter Austausch von Geld, d.h. vergegenständlichter Arbeit, mit lebendiger Arbeit entweder das Wertgesetz aufheben, welches sich grade erst auf Grundlage der kapitalistischen Produktion frei entwickelt, oder die kapitalistische Produktion selbst aufheben, welche grade auf der Lohnarbeit beruht.
MECW 35, 536: Apart from these contradictions, a direct exchange of money, i.e., of realised labour, with living labour would either do away with the law of value which only begins to develop itself freely on the basis of capitalist production, or do away with with capitalist production itself, which rests directly on wage labour.
Penguin, 676: Apart from these contradictions, a direct exchange of money, i.e., of objectified labour, with living labour would either supersede the law of value, which only begins to develop freely on the basis of capitalist production, or supersede capitalist production itself, which rests directly on wage labour.

In my view, a better translation is:
Apart from these antagonisms, a direct exchange of money, i.e. objectified labour, with living labour would either sublate the law of value that just now develops itself freely on the basis of capitalist production, or sublate capitalist production itself that precisely rests on wage-labour.

MEW, 791: Die aus der kapitalistischen Produktionsweise hervorgehende kapitalistische Aneignungsweise, daher das kapitalistische Privateigentum, ist die erste Negation des individuellen, auf eigne Arbeit gegründeten Privateigentums. Aber die kapitalistische Produktion erzeugt mit der Notwendigkeit eines Naturprozesses ihre eigne Negation. Es ist Negation der Negation. Diese stellt nicht das Privateigentum wieder her, wohl aber das individuelle Eigentum auf Grundlage der Errungenschaft der kapitalistischen Ära: der Kooperation und des Gemeinbesitzes der Erde und der durch die Arbeit selbst produzierten Produktionsmittel.
Kapital, Urfassung von 1867, 744f: Die kapitalistische Produktions- und Aneignungsweise, daher das kapitalistische Privateigenthum, ist die erste Negation des individuellen, auf eigene Arbeit gegründeten Privateigenthums. Die Negation der kapitalistischen Produktion wird durch sie selbst, mit der Nothwendigkeit eines Naturprozesses, producirt. Es ist Negation der Negation. Diese stellt das individuelle Eigentum wieder her, aber auf Grundlage der Errungenschaft der kapitalistischen Aera, der Cooperation freier Arbeiter und ihrem Gemeineigenthum an der Erde und den durch die Arbeit selbst producirten Produktionsmitteln.
MECW, 751: The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation of individual private property, as founded on the labour of the proprietor. But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation. It is the negation of negation. This does not re-establish private property for the producer, but gives him individual property based on the acquisition of the capitalist era: i.e., on cooperation and the possession in common of the land and of the means of production.
Penguin, 929: The capitalist mode of appropriation, which springs from the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation of individual private property, as founded on the labour of its proprietor. But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a natural process, its own negation. This is the negation of the negation. It does not re-establish private property, but it does indeed establish individual property on the basis of the achievements of the capitalist era: namely co-operation and the possession in common of the land and the means of production produced by labour itself

Taking into account both the formulation in the MEW and the Urfassung, in my view a better English translation is:
The capitalist mode of appropriation emerging from the capitalist mode of production, hence capitalist private property, is the first negation of private property founded on an individual’s own labour. But capitalist production produces with the necessity of a natural process its own negation. It is the negation of the negation. This does not re-establish private property, but indeed individual property on the basis of the capitalist era’s attainments: the co-operation of free labourers, their common possession of the Earth and the means of production produced by labour itself.

Marx and Engels’ knowledge work is the primary work objectified in MECW and all other translations and editions. It is therefore ridiculous to stage struggles about copyrights, access and who is allowed to monetarily benefit from the sale of Marx and Engels’ dead work that has created works that are very alive up until today and into the future. Limiting access or making it more difficult makes these living works partly dead. The most important task is to make good translations as easily and as widely available to as many people as possible in order to enable them to read Marx and Engels’ analyses of capitalism that have crucial political relevance. The current debate has highlighted that there is a political economy of Marx and Engels’ writings that concerns questions of authorship, work and ownership. It has rather overlooked that there is also a cultural political economy involved that must aim at finding ways, means, media, resources and the work necessary to globally disseminate Marx and Engels’ writings. We should not deflect attention away from the importance of having good translations readily available in easy and accessible form for as many people as possible. The WWW can make an important contribution to this purpose.

The task should therefore be that we create a new and improved English online edition of Marx and Engels’ works, starting with Capital Volume 1, by making use of wiki-based collaborative translation work. We shouldn’t pay L&W, but gather work force and resources to improve the availability and quality of Marx and Engels’ works.

Marxist translators of the world unite!

Christian Fuchs is editor of the open access online journal tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique

The petition for keeping Marx and Engels’ works common knowledge can be signed here

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3 Responses to “Lawrence & Wishart vs. The Marxists Internet Archive: The Blindness of the Copyright Left”


  • Comment from Tai Neilson

    Professor Fuchs, thank you for an excellent analysis of the controversy over MECW. How did you arrive at your estimates for the number of hours of work Marx, Engels, Moore and Aveling dedicated to Capital Vol. 1? I ask because I’m in the process of writing about the issue and would like to cite your estimates.

  • Comment from christian fuchs

    That Marx dedicated 20 000 hours to writing Capital Volume 1 is a very rough estimate based on the assumption that most of the work that went into it was done after the “Critique of Politcal Economy” was finished in early 1859 and he worked the next 8.5 years on it until mid-1867. Then of course he did additional work for the second edition and the Russian and French translations, so maybe another 1.5 years. As Marx was a hard worker, I think it is no underestimation to assume that he worked in these years 2 000 hours per year on Volume 1, which is around 38.5 hours per week. And of course then he wrote other things too in these years, especially articles, and did work for the International Working Men Association’s. So his regular working week was definitely very long…

  • Comment from Tai Neilson

    Thanks for your reply and the explanation. I think its important to retain a measurement of labor time when analyzing intellectual production, as you have done here. I talked to Andy Blunden at MIA to see if he has estimates for the time taken to digitally archive selections from MECW. He encouraged me to go through the process of archiving a book and time myself – something I hope to attempt soon. I’m set to have an article on MIA and L&W published in the 2015 edition of http://www.fastcapitalism.com. I can contact you when it is available. Thanks again.


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