Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 3, 2013

Thoughts on Harper’s Magazine and intellectual property

Filed under: intellectual property,Internet,journalism — louisproyect @ 5:38 pm

John R. “Rick” MacArthur

This morning Les Schaffer, the technical coordinator of Marxmail, and I got an email from the webmaster of Harper’s Magazine:

Hi there,

I’m the web editor at Harper’s Magazine. I’m afraid we don’t allow copies of our articles to be hosted on other sites. Will you please remove this article — http://www.marxmail.org/EagletonMarx.pdf — immediately? I trust you understand; I’d rather not have to send a formal DMCA notice, but will if necessary.

Thanks very much.
Jeremy Keehn
Harper’s Magazine

There were a couple of things that popped into my mind right off the bat. How in the world did Keehn get wind of my “pirating” their intellectual property? Did one of my thousands of enemies snitch on me? Or is part of Keehn’s job description to police the Internet to make sure that nobody is purloining Harper’s material? I am sure that the actual web chores take up little of his time since the Harper’s website is notoriously underdeveloped, a policy decision made by their publisher John R. Macarthur, about whom I will have more to say momentarily.

The first thing I did was Google DMCA. What the hell did that stand for? Don’t Mess with Corporate Assets? Dickwad Micromanaging Commodified Archives?

It turns out that this stands for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, legislation enacted in 1998 to protect the rights of “content providers” in danger of being hijacked by people like me. What makes the legal focus on Youtube, bit torrent, and other Internet technologies so interesting is that it can’t  possibly be argued that anybody is benefiting financially by putting the Eagleton article, a Bob Dylan performance, etc. online as if my posting an article will rob Harper’s out of millions of dollars. In reality, they will benefit from my posting of an article since the average Marxmail reader or Facebook friend has no idea what Harper’s Magazine is about. Maybe they’ll buy one because they liked the Terry Eagleton article. After all, the music industry figured out that Youtube clips were a good way to boost revenue by raising awareness about an artist. Too bad that Harper’s is so backward that it can’t see an upside to my bad behavior.

Harper’s has been published since June 1850. I have been a subscriber since the early 80s and have stuck with the magazine over the years because of the occasional investigative journalism piece like one on mountaintop removal in West Virginia from about a decade ago. But the real attraction is the British-style “difficult” crossword puzzles that I enjoy doing. The Nation Magazine has them as well and I might even shell out money for an electronic subscription just to be able to do them even if it means putting up with all the “why Obama should do this or that…” manure.

The Atlantic Monthly used to have those kinds of crossword puzzles as well but discontinued them a few years ago. Speaking of which, all of the Atlantic Monthly’s content is online and they are running a profit unlike Harper’s that relies on John R. MacArthur’s largesse.

John R. “Rick” MacArthur is the grandson of John D. MacArthur who died in 1978 at the age of 80. He established the MacArthur Foundation in the year he died. It sometimes sounds like half the shows on PBS are funded by this foundation that is also known for its yearly “genius grants”. In 1980 Rick engineered a takeover of the magazine by the MacArthur Foundation. Katrina Vanden Heuvel’s inherited wealth keeps The Nation afloat, just as Rick’s does for Harper’s. At least with Harper’s you don’t get the pro-DP slop even though Thomas Frank, one of his top editors, made the case for an Obama vote in 2011.

All evidence points to MacArthur being primarily responsible for the strict DMCA enforcement his webmaster is carrying out. He really seems to hate the Internet:

This for-profit theft is committed in the pious guise of universal access to “free information,” as if Google were just a bigger version of your neighborhood public library. Acceptance of such a fairy tale lets parasitic search engines assert that they are “web neutral,” just disinterested parties whose glorious mission is to educate and uplift.

This is nonsense, of course. Google’s bias for search results that list its own products above those of its competitors is now well-known, but equally damaging, and less remarked, is the bias that elevates websites with free content over ones that ask readers to pay at least something for the difficult labor of writing, editing, photographing, drawing, and painting and thinking coherently. Try finding Harper’s Magazine when you Google “magazines that publish essays” or “magazines that publish short stories” — it isn’t easy.

Oh well, now that my favorable references to Harper’s articles will be coming to an end, there’s at least one less route to his magazine that can be relied on.

I first began to question MacArthur’s competence after I discovered that he had fired his very capable editor Roger Hodge in 2010. Hodge was the author of a very good critique of Obama that I reviewed for Swans in 2011. In an interview with Guernica, Hodge described his differences with MacArthur over the web:

Guernica: What are your thoughts on the current state of Harper’s and its prospects for the future?

Roger D. Hodge: Frankly, I despair for the future of Harper’s Magazine. Although I am grateful for all the money Rick MacArthur has contributed over the years, it’s just not possible to publish a great national magazine in 2011 using a business plan that was devised in 1984. The world has changed; the audience has changed. Harper’s used to be at the heart of the national debate. It was also the most vibrant and exciting literary magazine in the world; nowadays many people don’t even realize that it still exists.

It’s a damn shame. And the story didn’t have to end this way. Harper’s remains a very good magazine—it still publishes excellent journalism and fiction, outstanding literary criticism. And, with the exception of the cover, which has been outsourced, it’s the most beautiful magazine I know. But all those riches are hidden from view. The newsstand industry is dying; direct mail is a failure; the Internet in all its gaudy diversity is the only hope. Contrary to the assertions of Harper’s management, magazines truly are using the web to build circulation. The Nation has a very successful model; the Atlantic, after a long struggle, is turning a profit; Mother Jones is thriving and has raised millions of dollars. There are people out there who know how to use the web to connect with readers. Some of them used to work for Harper’s.

At the risk of getting a cease-and-desist DMCA letter from N+1, the spunky magazine that I began subscribing to last year, I am going to quote from a piece that appeared in issue number 15 that deals with print publications and the Internet. I couldn’t have put it better:

With enough money, you can force the past into the present, or at least hold the future at bay. Harper’s, it turns out, is the Petit Trianon of publishing. Marie Antoinette had her artificially aged cottages and working dairy farm, and MacArthur has his fully operational magazine, which both embodies and celebrates the values of his old Chicago newsroom. At Harper’s, the administrative staff is largely female, the board is entirely male, the writers are almost all male, and the internet barely exists.

It would be one thing if Harper’s nostalgia were only a question of office culture or distribution. But it permeates the pages of the magazine, determining not only the approach to subject matter but what subjects are worthy of being included at all. Although Harper’s circulation is small, its reputation is such that it continues to have a say in what counts, and what subjects are worthy of serious thought by serious people: in other words, what constitutes the nation’s public life — and, by extension, which lives constitute “the public.”

We imagine asking Harper’s, What about women? Their response would probably be, Well, what about women? The voice of Harper’s is pitched such that the question can only be asked rhetorically. Matters of gender and sexuality do not actually matter. In one of the few instances where they were even raised, when Thomas Frank wrote about abortion in October 2011, the case was actually made that the pro-life movement is ineffective, and that abortion rights are a non-issue. Frank suggests that what happens on the state level just doesn’t matter, because it’s not on the national stage — an argument that willfully overlooks decades of pro-life activism that has strategically and deliberately built the movement state by state, and that this tactic has accounted for much of its growth and many of its victories.

Finally, and most importantly, MacArthur has operated just like a typical capitalist when it comes to the right of his wage slaves. If writing for Harper’s is just a form of the commodity exchange process, in which everything has a price including labor, it is no surprise that he is taking a stance reminiscent of Charles Montgomery Burns of “The Simpsons” fame. The Maida Rosenstein mentioned in this article, by the way, led a very successful strike at Barnard in the mid-90s that I remember well. You do not want to get on her wrong side:

There will be a few key names missing from the masthead of Harper’s Magazine next month. The non-profit magazine laid off Literary Editor Ben Metcalf and an Associate Editor, Theodore Ross, in January. Harper’s, which has a circulation of 200,000, said it made the layoffs for economic reasons.

“At the end of the day, we are in a difficult economy and we felt that Ben and Ted’s work could be absorbed,” said John Rick MacArthur, who has been the publisher of Harper’s for nearly the past 30 years. “Businesses are often faced with laying off employees and Harper’s is not an exception, although we have had to make very few cuts compared to our peers.”

But the union that has been representing more than a dozen of Harper’s editors since last October said that Metcalf, at least, was let go because he was one of the leaders of the magazine’s recent union organizing drive.

“We believe it’s a retaliatory layoff because he was a very public supporter of the union,” said Maida Rosenstein, the president of United Auto Workers (U.A.W.) Local 2110, which represents the editors. “We believe that layoff should be retracted and he should be brought back.”

Several Harper’s editors expressed an interest in joining U.A.W. Local 2110 last spring, according to the union. Local 2110 said that the editors, who declined requests to speak to WNYC on the record, wanted a union to give them job security and pay increases.

Harper’s declined to disclose salary information to WNYC, but the union said assistant editors start out with an annual salary of $31,000. The literary editor who was laid off on Friday after 17 years on the job, Ben Metcalf, made $99,000 a year, and magazine employees working on the business side of Harper’s make more than $200,000 a year, according to U.A.W.

My final words of advice. Don’t bother with a sub to Harper’s. Save your money for N+1.The magazine has gone downhill over the years, even if the puzzle remains tip-top. Here’s a clue from the latest: “I was fired in just one war—Europe”. The answer: Stoneware. Mystified? Look at it this way: “I was fired in just one war—Europe”.


  1. The Marxists Internet Archive has received DCMA letters, one recently, arguing that a 1881 article by Paul Lafargue, written in FRENCH…on our French language section, is in violation of the DMCA. Seriously. Phishing, I suppose. The letter is to be ignored.

    But the ugliness is not simply skin deep…

    DMCA is simply an updated version or electronic application of the S.505, otherwise known as the “Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act” of 1998…passed the same year as the DMCA. S.505 extended copyright terms from between 20 to 50 years on all copyrighted anything that fell under the previous, somewhat less restrictive Copyright Act of 1978 which brought the U.S. in line with various international convention such as the “Berne Convention”.

    The SBCTEA however was part and parcel of the newer drive to turn ‘everything into property and profit’. Such as the drive to privatize the human genome to seed species trademarking and ownership of all things living that could be sold at a profit.

    We could have some grand discussions on the reactionary nature of current and past copyright conventions. At any rate, the trend is to make restrictions tighter as they get broader in scope. We see this in the recently defeated bill that would of completely restricted the use & ownership of all things related to the internet.

    My view is that if the DMCA charge is filed…it means nothing until whatever agency the DMCA is using to enforce the restrictions is actually deployed. That they are threatening the use of DMCA means they are too cheap to get a lawyer. In a way, they are ‘asking nicely’ and not going to a lawyer. But the DMCA as a threat is someone oblique. They’d have a very hard time, as you note, to any damage caused by your ‘pirating their stuff’. The DMCA was designed to stop others from cutting into the *profits* of copyright holders.


    Comment by David Walters — April 3, 2013 @ 6:51 pm

  2. Interesting the parallels between Harpers and many surviving marxist sects: fear of the web and social media, an irrational attachment to printed matter, drenched in nostalgia, entrenched male chauvinism, authoritarian tendencies, sclerotic leadership, lack of profitability…

    Comment by dave x — April 3, 2013 @ 10:06 pm

  3. The internet has essentially rendered everything that can take a digital form common property.The entire cultural heritage of humanity has been nationalized,de facto if not de jure,scarcity has been overcome and digital works are available in limitless quantities to everyone with an internet connection.This is a perfect example of the forces of production outgrowing the old relations of production and DMCA,DRM and other coercive measures by the state are all attempts at maintainig obsolete social relations.Copyright restrictions on books even claim you can’t lend your book to a friend unfortunately Amazon kindle,Apple’s itunes and other proprietary software actually make such restrictions enforceable.It’s illegal to share!And massive state intervention is required to limit the use of new technologies.That really sums up capitalism today.

    Comment by linuxlefty — April 4, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

  4. Well, I for one am heeding your detailed, persuasive call – this pecksniffery from Harper’s just sunk my last affiliation with the magazine. Put ’em all, corporate-funded, or corporate donor-funded in the same boat, and sink ’em, – Nation (already gone), Utne Reader (already gone), Mother Jones (already gone), and now I’ll save the next 11.00 per year for this co-marketer with Shell. I hope they can get more money from American Spirit (what an Orwellian name) cigarettes to cover my cost.
    Though, by the same token, a “non-profit” such as the Center for Media and Demcoracy also takes corporate donor funding: Rockefeller, Ford, et al. What a crappy racket – how about n+1 – any snazzy lounge chairs donated from the corporate masters of the world?

    Comment by Martin — April 4, 2013 @ 5:22 pm

  5. My subscription to Harper’s ends in November 2015, so I’ll see if the magazine goes defunct before then. If I didn’t subscribe to Harper’s, would I buy an issue ($6.99) from the newsstand? Not much in Harper’s lately would compel me to do so. But Bookforum (which I also subscribe to): yes.

    Yet Harper’s is not part of the buzz-chasing world in the same way as The Atlantic (how it’s changed) or Vanity Fair, and that still holds an attraction. My point is that no one magazine can do it all.

    Comment by Poppa Zao — April 4, 2013 @ 10:26 pm

  6. As an author I treasure my ownership of my own production. Who else but me should own it? Ebooks are not “bought” by readers because providers like Amazon do not “own” the ebooks. Amazon has only a license to further license the ebook to a reader. Just as Amazon cannot “share” the ebook contents without paying a royalty, so too the reader cannot either. The only ownership resides with the author. Books, of course, are covered by the “first sale” doctrine, meaning that once an actual book is sold, it belongs to whomever buys it and they can do with that particular book whatever they please, share it; sell it; give it away. Intellectual property rights seem to be evil and/or unfair mainly to those who don’t possess any. I suggest you write a book; get it published; and then see how eager you are to have it sold without your permission or made available for free.

    Comment by Richard Greener — April 5, 2013 @ 7:07 pm

  7. Richard, I don’t think pirated books are an issue. It is instead people recirculating material that is already digitized, like a song on a cd or a magazine article that is supposedly meant for subscribers. In the case we are dealing with here, it is highly unlikely that Harper’s bottom line would be affected by my recirculating a review of a Karl Marx bio. This essentially is about Rick MacArthur’s hatred of the Internet. Period.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 5, 2013 @ 7:31 pm

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