Would Karl Marx have waived his copyright on principle? I don’t know for sure, but I rather doubt it. Marx was not entirely in sympathy with Proudhon’s famous assertion that “property is theft,” and in any case probably expected to make at least part of his living off from his intellectual property. Nevertheless, there is something rather odd about a left-wing press asserting its own copyright to prevent the digital distribution of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels. Marx’s interests are not being protected, of course; his works have been in the public domain for many years. But Lawrence & Wishart Publishing wants to protect its own income from this property by asserting a copyright in new material that is contained in the volumes, including notes, introductions and original translations, and it has demanded that the Marxists Internet Archive remove digital copies of the works.
It is interesting to consider who is being hurt by the distribution and by the take down demand. The distribution, as I say, does no harm to Marx or his descendants, since the copyright has already expired. The party harmed, of course, is the publisher, which can continue to collect revenue from public domain works, and is entitled to enforce exclusivity if, as in this case, there is new material that is currently protected by copyright.
So we have the irony of Marxist literature being protected by that most capitalist of business structures, a monopoly, and a left-wing press asserting that monopoly to limit dissemination of Marxist ideas.
Does the take down demand harm anyone? Much of this literature is available in other forms on the Internet, owing to its public domain status. Potential readers will presumably be harmed, to a degree, because English versions of some more obscure works by Marx and Engels will become unavailable if the translations in the Collected Works were the first of their kind. But I can’t help thinking that the folks who are really harmed by this decision are the contemporary scholars who contributed to the volumes published by Lawrence and Wishart. Perhaps they thought that by contributing to a collected works project they had the opportunity to offer a definitive interpretation of some particular essay or letter. Perhaps they hoped to make an impact on their chosen field of study. But those opportunities are greatly reduced now. Potential readers will find the works they are looking for in other editions that remain available in the Archive, or they will not find them at all. They will look to other scholars to help them understand those works, scholars whose writings are more accessible.
While I cannot dispute the right of Lawrence and Wishart to demand exclusivity, it is a clear reminder about how poorly the traditional system of publishing, based on state-enforced exclusivity, serves scholars in an age when there are so many opportunities in the digital environment to reach a much larger audience. I suspect that the price of the Collected Works set is high, and the publisher is quite obscure (a colleague here just shrugged when I mentioned the name), so its distribution will be quite limited. It is a sad illustration of how traditional publishing that relies on subscriptions for digital material is inextricably mired in the print model, trying desperately to reproduce the scarcity of print resources in defiance of the abundance possible in the digital environment. The losers in that effort are the scholars whose ability to impact their field is deliberately reduced by this effort — beyond their control — to preserve exclusivity and scarcity.
“Beyond their control” leads directly to the other irony from the publishing industry that I want to share in this post. A colleague recently sent me a PDF of the preliminary program for the conference being held in Boston next month of the Society for Scholarly Publishing. It was the description of the very first seminar that caught both her eye and mine:
Seminar 1: Open Access Mandates and Open Access “Mandates:” How Much Control Should Scholars Have over Their Work?Many universities now mandate that faculty authors deposit their work in Open Access university repositories. Others are developing this expectation, but not yet mandating participation. This seminar will review various mandatory and non-mandatory OA deposit policies, the implementation of different policies, and the responses of faculty members to them. Panelists will discuss the degree to which academic institutions ought to determine the disposition of publications originating on their campus.
It is hard to believe that the SSP could print this session description with a straight face. Surely they know that the law deliberately gives scholars a great deal of control over their work, in the form of copyright. Scholars exercise that control in a variety of ways, including when they vote to adopt an open access policy, as many have done. So where is the threat to scholar’s control over their own works? Perhaps at the point where they are required to relinquish their copyright as a condition of publication. If the SSP were really concerned about scholars having control over their own writings, the panel for this session would be discussing how to modify copyright transfer policies so that scholarly publishers would stop demanding that faculty authors give up all of their rights.
The SSP has carefully written the session description to make it sound like open access policies are imposed on faculty against their will. But every policy I am aware of was adopted by the faculty themselves, usually after extensive discussions. And the majority of policies have liberal waiver provisions, so that faculty who do not wish to grant a license for open access do not have to do so. On the other hand, publishers almost never provide a similar way for authors to opt out of mandatory copyright transfer, other than paying a significant fee for an author-pays OA option, which offers authors a chance to buy what they already own. Perhaps this concern about authorial control could be channeled into a discussion about the new models of scholarly publishing that are developing that do not require copyright transfer and that seek alternate ways to finance the improved access so many university faculties are indicating they want.
There is a lot to talk about here, especially in terms of authorial control. Consulting the authors whose material is published in the Collected Works of Marx and Engels might have engendered discussion of a solution to the issue about the Marxists Archive other than simply demanding removal. Maybe those authors should have resisted the demand to transfer copyright wholesale to Lawrence and Wishart in the first place. But publishers continue to think in terms of total control over the works they publish; that is the real threat to authors and that is the problem that the SSP ought to be addressing.