Copyright laws are theft

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels for the masses

Joseph Kessel calls for the works of the founding fathers of scientific socialism to become the ‘property’ of the workers’ movement as a whole, not the subject of bourgeois copyright laws

At one of the many demonstrations against the tripling of student fees that took place a few years ago, a picture was snapped of a young woman in front of the University of London Union bearing a home-made placard. It read: “Where’s Karl Marx when we need him most?” The point this comrade was making immediately hit home and accordingly the picture has done the rounds on various far-left websites and publications: in times of economic crisis and austerity, what better figure to turn to than the great theorist of capitalism’s inherent tendency to crisis and social dislocation?

In 2014, this slogan is pertinent in a very different context. Indeed, it may well be time for the student comrade to dust off her placard and for others to fashion similar ones. Why? Well, at a time when “we need them” (and their scientific method) most, it is looking increasingly likely that Marx’s and Engels’ English-language Collected works (MECW), 10 of the 50 volumes of which are usefully featured on the Marxist Internet Archive (www.marxists.org), will be removed from that site by the time this article hits the press. A travesty.

If you are some kind of lefty, an academic or even a humanities student hunting an Antonio Gramsci quote on cultural hegemony in the early hours of the morning, then you will have most definitely used the MIA at some point. The MIA’s monthly hits, I am told, are counted in the tens of millions. Based entirely on the selfless voluntary work of a small, yet gradually expanding, body of transcribers, coders, translators and archivists, the MIA includes material in more or less every language you can think of from a wide range of Marxist thinkers and activists with varying backgrounds: thus there is a Paul Lafargue archive, a Tony Cliff archive and a Joseph Stalin archive. Thanks to the MIA, a simple Google search places many of the works of such people at the disposal of millions across the world. A real service to our movement.


In its relatively short history, the MIA has not exactly been devoid of problems and challenges to its work. In rather more gung-ho attempts to remove the ideas of Marx, Engels and others from the public domain, the MIA website has been subject to a number of ‘spike’ attacks with the aim of bringing down its entire archive. I have heard that some of these attacks have been linked to a certain East-Asian state, whose ruling party still has the temerity to call itself ‘communist’ …

This latest controversy potentially sticks in the throat somewhat more, however. For here we are not dealing with a ruling group of Stalino-capitalists, but a self-proclaimed “radical” and “independent” publisher, Lawrence and Wishart, using the utter sham of capitalist copyright laws (or, as they are more pretentiously known, ‘intellectual property rights’) to issue an ultimatum to MIA: if the material from the first 10 volumes is not removed by the end of April, then the MIA will receive a letter from those faithful custodians of the working class movement: lawyers attempting to make a lot of cash from the legacy of Marx and Engels.

If only because of this story’s deeply ironic twist, it is gaining some international coverage beyond the forces of the left. Good. The New York Times is apparently going to feature an article on May 1 and even some in the ‘techie’ world have chipped in to point out the certain spuriousness when ‘leftwingers’ drown out Marx and Engels in the name of copyright.1 In a purported attempt to keep its enterprise financially viable, L&W has placed bourgeois property rights above the works of two men whose lives embodied the struggle to overcome such rights.

Those with first-hand experience of the politics of L&W may not be so surprised at its latest turn. Founded during the popular front era of the Communist International in 1936 as a merger between Martin Lawrence, the Communist Party of Great Britain’s press, and the liberal anti-fascist Wishart Ltd, L&W has always been closely tied to the fate of the ‘official communist’ movement as a whole: ie, slow and painful death by “a thousand opportunist cuts”, as the Weekly Worker’s forerunner, The Leninist, aptly put it. As such the publisher’s history embodies some of that movement’s strengths (for this author, at least, publishing much of the flawed yet nonetheless outstanding output of the CPGB Historians Group) and nearly all of its weaknesses.

So it is that by the 1970s L&W was a key player in the rise of Eurocommunism and its factional struggle to dominate and thoroughly ‘bourgeoisify’ the forlorn CPGB. (In one of L&W’s statements on the Marx-Engels copyright furore, it talks of its origins in the “communist/Eurocommunist tradition”: an oxymoron if ever there was one.) In the 1980s this tendency then came to embrace “the cultural turn” in politics and increasingly distanced itself from Marxism and (purportedly ‘outdated’) parties informed by such perspectives. As is well known, following the collapse of the official CPGB, some figures from this grouping ended up as Blairite toadies. L&W has not (yet) gone that far: to its credit it was involved - amongst several other projects - in the sterling work of collating, translating, annotating, introducing and publishing the 50-volume MECW in collaboration with the former Soviet Union’s Progress Publishers and the New-York based International Publishers, an undertaking that that lasted no less than 30 years, from 1975 through to 2005.

It was in 2005 that this story has it beginnings with both parties arriving at an informal agreement that the MECW could be featured on the MIA site as long as links to the published material were maintained throughout. After all, given the three-way cooperation on the project (and the fact that Progress Publishers went the same way as the Soviet Union), it could even be argued that L&W claims to copyright were not exactly cut and dried in the first place.

So what has changed since 2005? Well, there is an obvious sense in which decisions on the L&W board are being shaped by circumstances outside it. After all, from the standpoint of many in and around L&W, if Marxism is now really little more than a chapter of history - what exactly is the problem with attempting to keep one’s head above water from the copyright on such classical writings by working on a ‘digital edition’ of the MECW aimed primarily at library subscriptions, rather than make them freely available online?

Of course, L&W can certainly be taken at its word when it claims that the outfit is run “on a shoestring”. The enormous technological changes of the past, combined with the downturn in working class politics more generally, have conspired to make life very tough for print outfits. Even much larger, thoroughly capitalist companies rely on revenue from copyright and advertising. For all their differences, there is a sense in which L&W and indeed all radical publishers are coming to resemble the MIA: that is to say, they are mainly based on volunteer/underpaid/overworked labour.

The workers’ movement is currently suffering from a shortage of even the most basic means of self-defence and organisation, let alone educational associations, extensive libraries, study groups, publishing enterprises, etc: something that even the increasingly emaciated ‘official communist’ parties were able to provide on some level in the past. Around 30 years ago the very people associated with the “Eurocommunist tradition” were assuring us that communist parties, and Marxism as the political economy of the working class, had to be junked in favour of manifold fads and non-working class dead-ends (identity politics, ecologism and suchlike). So perhaps, decades on, threatening to deploy the bourgeois state’s courts and judges against the online presence of the MECW under the pretext of intellectual property rights is merely the culmination of a longer-term process.

Politics has its own logic. Yes, at present this is, as comrade David Walters of MIA reminds us, ‘merely’ a matter of deleting 1,662 files from the Marx/Engels archive - “a small percentage” of the MECW and an even smaller percentage of MIA as a whole. Yet, given that copyrighted material from outfits like International Publishers and L&W also covers at least sections of the writings of VI Lenin and others, this decision sets a dangerous precedent for other aspects of our class’s past. In light of the L&W move, how will International Publishers (or other publishers) react regarding the material over which they hold copyright? L&W itself has history on this very matter, intervening to ensure that certain translations of Antonio Gramsci’s writings were removed from the MIA.2

Campaign of abuse

The online exchange between MIA and L&W sparked by the latter’s ultimatum has been notable for two main things: the evasive responses of L&W and the restraint on the part of MIA. It can be assumed that with the Damoclesian sword of prospective legal battles and financial costs looming over them, the MIA comrades have merely emphasised the facts of the case and avoided polemic (given that the very livelihoods of some of these hard-working activist comrades and their families are under threat here, this is in part understandable).

Yet others on the left have reacted strongly and L&W has been forced onto the defensive. The nature of its responses on the matter bears the typical slipperiness of the soft left. L&W talks of a “campaign of abuse” (what about the “abuse” of the legacy of Marx and Engels?) directed against it merely for demanding that “copyright be respected”. Someone pass me a bucket. Predictably, desperately, L&W urges its growing number of detractors to concentrate their fire on the large capitalist enterprises that make a killing from copyright enforcement and so on. Yet this misses the obvious elephant in the room: any self-proclaimed “radical” should oppose intellectual property rights as a basic principle, not try to mimic on a small scale the crass anti-democratic (and therefore anti-working class) restrictions on free information enforced by capitalist enterprises.

Speaking to the US Chronicle of Higher Education, MIA stalwart Andy Blunden rightly expressed his fears about the ramifications that such a narrow-minded fielding of bourgeois property rights may have for “the ordinary Joe”: that is to say, somebody without access to a well-stocked university or library and not being in a position to easily access the work of Marx and Engels above and beyond classics such as Capital, The communist manifesto and so on (these have been issued in different translations by various publishers, and as such can continue to be featured on MIA.) While on occasion the MECW can be bought for much less second-hand, the individual volumes can retail for as much as £50. Not easy to come by, not easy to store and not easy to search through. The MIA is the ideal home for all of these volumes and can only serve to strengthen and deepen current Marxist writing and research.

Even from the point of view of what the American Marxist, Scott McLemee, deems a “purely capitalist enterprise”3 (which L&W is obviously not, as things currently stand), this decision is still breathtakingly counterproductive. At the time of writing, 4,746 activists have already signed an online petition: ‘No copyright for Marx-Engels Collected works’. So should you.4 Many of the signatories will be the very writers, journalists, peer reviewers, translators on which any “radical publisher” depends, many of whom will perform such work gratis or for very little out of a commitment to ‘the cause’. You can imagine a possible future scenario where one such figure is asked to review a piece for one of the journals published by L&W: ‘Who publishes it?’ ‘Oh, you mean the people who forced the MECW off the web, right? No thanks.’

If L&W’s doubtless overworked and underpaid personnel wish to strengthen L&W’s finances, then maybe conspiring to establish their organisation’s reputation as a scab outfit which threatens activists in the workers’ movement with the courts might not be exactly the most prudent way of going about things. L&W thinks that it would commit “institutional suicide” by allowing the MECW to remain freely available online, but its actions smack precisely of self-destruction. The only likely immediate result of its decision is that the disputed material will continue to exist in various forms on the web (is L&W so naive as to think this stuff will not be available on various mirrors/torrents almost overnight?) and L&W’s name will rightly be dragged through the mud - the millions logging onto the front page of MIA every month will be repeatedly reminded of its shenanigans.

Moreover, there is evidence that having free material online can at least help to offset the undeniable tendency towards the decline in sales and revenue that the web is indisputably bringing its wake. After all, MIA has proved itself to be more than reasonable when it comes to referencing the sources of the material it uses,5 whether it be a newspaper like the Weekly Worker or a leftwing publishing house: this allows those who are willing/able to actually go and purchase an original copy of the relevant publication. Surely this would be a possible solution and preferable to completely alienating your potential readership?

L&W is at pains to stress that the works will remain in the public domain and paid for by public money. But these are mere weasel words. Copyright laws hit each and every one of us on an almost daily basis and restrict access to the world’s intellectual and cultural heritage. Such laws are precisely aimed at undermining any notion of knowledge as a ‘public’ good. As MIA correctly states in its response to L&W, “It is not public access. This is the opposite of the general trend toward making things available for free on the internet.” Moreover, not only is L&W not content with demanding that the first 10 volumes be removed - it is also insisting that even the MIA’s painstakingly-compiled index of the entire MECW be removed from the web. This index is of infinite value - even to those consulting the many volumes of MECW in a library.

Defend MIA

Of MIA, comrade Blunden says: “It’s down to our readers really to defend us”. And defend it we must: not that people will need the Weekly Worker to tell them that. Social media has been abuzz with lefties expressing their justified outrage at the move (one potentially positive upshot of all this is that MIA is getting a lot more publicity and support). It is indeed incumbent upon the left to kick up a fuss on this question and create an imaginative and vibrant campaign in support of MIA and against ‘intellectual property rights’ as a whole.

Communists - genuine communists - are unequivocal on this matter. Contra the Marx biographer, professor Jonathan Sperber, this stand-off does not represent a Hegelian “tragedy”: ie, a “conflict over two rights”,6 where both MIA and L&W have equally legitimate claims. As consistent democrats, communists have no truck with copyright laws or (so-called) intellectual property rights, whether these pertain to the greats of our own movement or Adolf Hitler, whether they are deployed by small publishers or large.

The revolutionary spirit of the works of Marx and Engels must remain at the centre of an international workers’ movement that is programmatically adrift and in serious disarray. In an increasingly Anglophone world, having not just the first 10 volumes of the MECW, but the whole project, online in English means that a student in Nigeria, a pensioner in New York or a garment worker in Delhi can easily access the ideas of Marx and Engels. Communists aim to forge a movement which thinks on its feet and which enjoys a deeply political culture and historical understanding: socialism and the self-liberation of the class demand nothing less. That is why the open and free exchange of information trumps other considerations.

Copyright is not part of the ‘answer’. We should be looking to develop our own activity, organisation and publishing muscle, not ‘playing the game’ of the market or the capitalist state - something negatively borne out by the whole sorry history of Eurocommunism itself, of course. When looking to the future of our class, what we have in mind are enterprises more along the lines of MIA than L&W.

It is hugely ironic and utterly deplorable that the MECW collection - something that the Change.org petition correctly deems “an essential part of the shared knowledge and resources of the international workers’ movement” - will be removed from MIA on May Day: International Workers’ Day, 2014 l


1. ‘Capitalism fells communism in Marx-Engels copyright flap’: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2014/04/capitalism-fells-communism-in-marx-engels-copyright-flap. I am sure that our friends in the world of technology will be more than au fait with how to get hold of the erased works online - not that this paper would encourage them to do so, of course. Regarding the MIA, this is actually not the first case of a so-called ‘radical publisher’ heinously pocketing copyright revenue from the works of great Marxist thinkers: the American Socialist Workers Party (not to be confused with its namesake on these shores) would surely find it nigh on impossible to exist were it not for the copyright from none other than Leon Trotsky’s texts, which it proprietorially prevents from being reproduced on the MIA.

2. See the introductory note on the page devoted to Antonio Gramsci: www.marxists.org/archive/gramsci/index.htm.

3. http://socialistworker.org/2014/04/28/taking-marx-away.

4. You can sign up to the petition here: www.change.org/petitions/lawrence-wishart-no-copyright-for-marx-engels-collected-works. The site also usefully features the exchange between L&W and the MIA, an overview of articles that have been written on the issue and explanations from the signatories on why this issue is so important.

5. Until recent developments, at least, MECW documents on the MIA site had links to the various places that the material can be bought as a hard copy, but also the ‘Intelex’ digitalised version of the MIA. This CD will set you back a cool one thousand dollars.

6. A quote suitably modified by Marx in chapter 10 of Capital Vol 1: “Between equal rights, force decides”. Many thanks to the MIA for quickly providing this reference to a writer in a slight hurry to submit an article (www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/index.htm).