Copyleft: Marxism, the internet and publishing



On 23 April this year, Lawrence & Wishart (L&W), publishers of the most well-known English translation of the Collected Works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, issued a “take-down notice” to the Marxists Internet Archive (MIA – L&W demanded that MIA remove from their website all the works to which L&W held copyright.

Since the late 1990s, MIA has been a vital resource for activists, making the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and hundreds of other socialist and revolutionary writers available free online worldwide. US leftist Scott McLemee, writing in Inside Higher Ed, describes the website like this:

It makes available a constantly expanding array of texts by scores of writers (not all of them Marxists and some not radical by any standard) in an impressive range of languages, and all at no charge. The site draws more than a million readers per month. … More remarkable even than MIA’s long-term survival as an independent and volunteer-staffed institution, I think, has been its nonsectarian, non-exclusionary policy concerning what gets archived.

The reaction to this from socialists and radicals all over the Internet was immediate and outraged, including a petition with thousands of signatures. L&W claimed to be Vaguely Surprised at this, explaining that they would be selling digital issues of the Works to universities and public libraries.

“Income from our copyright on this scholarly work contributes to our continuing publication programme,” stated L&W. “Infringement of this copyright has the effect of depriving a small radical publisher of the funds it needs to remain in existence.” They accused protesters of being part of “a consumer culture which expects cultural content to be delivered free to consumers, leaving cultural workers such as publishers, editors and writers unpaid”.

But MIA spokesperson David Walters responded that this was missing the point:

We have a political difference with L&W … Removing [the Works] from generalized Internet access and bouncing [them] ‘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…

It is not public access. This is the opposite of the general trend toward making things available for free on the Internet … The MIA existed from the get-go because we wanted to open up the privileged, access-only libraries at universities… The history of the workers movement should in fact be ‘free’.

We’ve seen this argument before, in many different areas where zero-cost distribution of intellectual property such as text, video and music via the Internet is debated. On one side, the social benefits of free information for all who wish to use it; on the other hand, the rights of content producers – and copyright holders – to be paid for their “intellectual property”. Who’s in the right?

Copyright as relation of production

It’s interesting that Karl Marx, living in an era where the most advanced information technology was the printing press and the telegraph – anticipated this very question. In his Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, he argued that “the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production”.

“Relations of production” means the social organisation of who works, who gets the goods, who gets paid and how much. New technologies lead to new relations of production, as the market and society rearrange to accommodate them; but then those new relations can hold back or strangle even newer innovations. One example would be how private cars and tarmac roads were initially a great advance on horses and muddy tracks, but the society which has grown to accommodate them holds back the next movement towards efficient public transport based on renewable energy.

In the Middle Ages, one copy of a 200-page book took weeks, even years, of work by monks and other professional hand-writers. With the printing press, a new copy can be produced and sold for maybe an hour’s pay. With the Internet, the PDF and the tablet reader, the cost of A copy of any book has been reduced to zero. Which means that everyone who made their living through the old technology must adapt to change, or go out of business – in the same way that the music industry has suffered over the last ten years.

The problem is that the “intellectual property” industry got very, very rich during the 500 years that the printing press was the cutting edge. One issue is the question of “copyright”, which is a classic example of a new relation of production. Copyright was developed 400 years ago so that authors had the sole right to decide who made copies of their work – for a period of 21 years after publication. But over the years, as authors increasingly sold their copyrights to capitalist publishing houses in exchange for a steady income, the industry pushed governments to extend copyright further and further, to protect their income stream.

Now, copyright lasts for the whole life of the author plus several decades – 50 years in many countries, 70 in the United States. That last extension was pushed by the Disney corporation, which dreads the day that Mickey Mouse will become “public domain”. Now Disney is notorious for patrolling the world to protect their copyright – for example, preventing preschools in New Zealand from painting Donald Duck on their walls.

No-one should be opposed to authors, artists, and musicians having their creative rights respected and earning a living from their work. But overwhelmingly the current copyright regime benefits not the artists, but the corporates who buy their copyrights from them. Walt Disney is long dead, so it’s hard to see why the corporation that bears his name should continue to “own” his work and characters forever. Copyright – a relation of production established to help authors – has turned into a means to expropriate their property to the benefit of publishers, such as L&W.


The “permanent” privatisation of written culture which the current regime establishes can only impoverish creativity worldwide – the “open source” argument isn’t just for computer software. In fact, the “free” culture of the Internet enables more value to be created from rearrangement of existing work.

For example, the problem with traditional academic publishing is that its method of linking texts together – footnoting and references – is extremely slow compared to the “one-click” links available on a World Wide Web page. McLemee points out that reading Capital – which was a product of its time and place, and written in a difficult style – may be hard work for a new modern reader, without the help of Engel’s commentaries on Marx’s work.

But these commentaries are packaged together with Capital on MIA in a way that they were not in the original Collected Works, or would be in L&W’s library proposal. David Walters in the MIA statement accused L&W of a “cognitive disconnect”, wanting to “destroy [the] enhanced functionality which MIA gave to the MECW material [by] embedding it with the writings of other Marxists.” In other words, L&W’s proposal would make the works less accessible and valuable, to protect L&W’s income stream from them – a classic example of relations of production holding back productive forces.


McLemme argues, finally, that MIA “seems to embody what Marx himself identified as the goal of his work: a society of “freely associated labour”, in which everyone gives according to ability and receives according to need.” So this website, and by extension, other free digital cultural exchange sites, are perhaps an anticipation of a communist future. And it is against this that L&W – formerly the publishing house of the Communist Party of Great Britain – have decided to make their stand for private intellectual property. The irony is delicious, and yet tragic.

It’s hard to resist James Butler’s conclusion that L&W have been “stupider than a latter-day [King] Cnut, and infinitely more craven.” You’d be hard pressed to find a better example of how new forces of production create new social groups who revolt against the old relations. Butler stunningly refutes L&W’s plea on behalf of small “radical publishers”:

Radical publishers are a necessary evil, but they are not necessary in themselves, and no obligation exists to keep them running out of sentiment. If we accept the internet changes things, then the old models of radical distribution are likely to change profoundly.

It is this very “changing things” in the Internet era that L&W has tried to hold back. “Tried”, because, very soon after the controversy became public, the question became moot. The disputed Marx/Engels works suddenly “appeared” online in 50 PDFs for free download. L&W’s plan to sell digital versions of the works went up in smoke, in perhaps an hour’s worth of work by anonymous Internet forces.

Contrary to L&W, this isn’t a case of a parasitic “consumer culture” – on the Internet, everyone can be a producer and a consumer. Socialists who want to overthrow market relationships in the rest of society have a lot to learn from the new Internet commons.

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