Update: January 2015
In April 2014 Lawrence & Wishart asked the Marxist Internet Archive to respect our copyright and take its unlicensed version of the Marx and Engels Collected Works (MECW) off its website.1 MECW is a fifty-volume scholarly edition of all the known works of Marx and Engels, including thirteen volumes of correspondence. It was worked on by L&W and two partner publishers over a period of more than forty years, during which time most of the translations it contains were newly commissioned, and an extensive scholarly apparatus was developed. The action we took was not to prevent people from reading the wide range of translations of Marx that are currently available, many of them out of copyright, but rather to protect the copyright on this particular edition, into which so many years of work had been invested.
We have now produced a digital version of the collection, which is available to university libraries through Project Muse. We are also continuing to look for other ways of making the digital edition available through licensed sources, and we will announce these as they come online. We are also considering how we might fund some free availability for those who have difficulty in accessing library editions, whether in print or online.
Our actions met with significant dismay online and in the media, and this reaction has led to a lot of discussion within our office and amongst our friends and colleagues – which is still ongoing. We recognise that some people believe that there should be free access to our edition, but our basic position is that, given that we operate in a commercial publishing environment, our first consideration in these matters must be to ensure the continuing financial viability of Lawrence & Wishart, in the face of all the challenges we currently face as a small independent left publisher. In particular, we need a digital strategy that allows us to balance our desire to reach as wide an audience as possible with our need to make the investments that will allow this to happen.
L&W is a small non-profit publisher, all of whose staff earn less than the average wage. After staff have been paid (currently we have the equivalent of three and a half full time workers), all income goes into supporting new critical political work through the publishing of a wide range of books and journals, including our extensive and costly (to L&W) programme of free e-books. The income derived from our copyright in MECW works has helped to pay for some of this activity, and our hope is that future income from the digital edition will help pay for the investment that is needed if we are to successfully adapt to the changing digital environment.
The debate over MECW is in many ways a proxy for one of the main issues that L&W have been grappling with for the last two decades: how to run a sustainable radical publishing company in the new digital context. This is something we will continue to discuss, and we will make further announcements as we find new ways of increasing the availability of key Marx texts.
1. It was only in April 2014 that we realised the extent of MIA’s copyright breach, which is why we took action then. Earlier statements on the Collected Works are available here.