Medieval Times invents a modern union-busting tactic

Trademark, like all “IP,” is a tool to control critics, customers and competitors.

Cory Doctorow


Striking workers in front of a factory, being fired on by teargas. Between them and the factory are a pair of jousting knights in the style of a medieval tapestry. Behind the factory looms a giant, ogrish boss in a top-hat, chomping a cigar. He is pulling on a lever made from a stylized dollar sign. In one gloved hand, he holds aloft a medieval night, who is bent over in supplication.

In the summer of 2020, I committed a minor heresy: I published a column that argued that — contrary to the orthodoxy of free culture and free software advocates — the term “IP” has a very crisp meaning: “IP” is any law or rule that can be used to control one’s critics, competitors or customers:

In free culture/free software circles, the term “IP” is viewed as a smokescreen, one that indiscriminately blended a basket of unrelated regulations and laws (copyright, trademark, patent, trade secrets, anticircumvention, noncompetes, nondisclosure, etc) and then declared them to be “property” and thus sacred to the neoliberal religious doctrine.

In my column, I argued that the policies grouped under “IP” were not an incoherent mess — rather, they all shared this one trait that made them useful to those who had, advocated for, or tried to expand “IP”: they were tools that would allow you to reach beyond your own business’s walls and exert control over the conduct of others — specifically, competitors, critics and customers.

Take trademark: Apple engraves miniature logos onto the parts inside your iPhone, which you will likely never see. But these logos allow Apple to argue that when someone breaks up a dead iPhone for parts sells them to independent repair shops that compete with Apple’s repair monopoly, they are violating Apple’s trademarks:

Or take DRM: DRM is useless for preventing copyright infringement (if you want to break the DRM on, say, an audiobook, you need only do a quick search). But because breaking DRM is illegal, Amazon’s Audible — the monopolist that controls the audiobook market — can prevent a rival like from offering you a way to switch from Audible to its platform and move your audiobooks with them:

Anyone performing a security audit of a modern digital product most likely violates some IP…