Urban Homesteading. It’s a beautiful collision of farm and urban life in urban and suburban areas. Feed yourself from your own garden? Try to squeeze a few chickens into your postage-stamp sized backyard? You’re an Urban Homesteader! This generally recognized term for people living The Good Life has, to my great astonishment, recently been trademarked by the Dervaes family of Pasedena, CA.
You may be familiar with the Dervaes family. If you’re at all like me, you probably stumbled across their website in the course of the last few years and thought “how interesting and admirable.” They seemed like a neat group of people doing a neat thing. Growing all that food on 1/10th of an acre! Trying to live sustainably! Documenting their journey so that others could get inspired! It’s all so admirable.
That’s why I was shocked to read about the nasty fallout from their trademarking of the terms “Urban Homestead” and “Urban Homesteading.”
Strange as it sounds, the Dervaes family actually sent out 16 letters last week to various bloggers and institutes bearing the name “Urban Homestead” or “Urban Homesteading” in their titles asking these places to either STOP using these descriptive terms OR give the Dervaes family proper attribution. They even filed a suit against the authors of the book The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-sufficient Living in the Heart of the City, despite the fact that the book was published in 2008 (2 years BEFORE the Dervaes family won their trademark for the terms). As a result of the Dervaes’ letters, Facebook even pulled down many pages for organizations such the Institute of Urban Homesteading and Denver Urban Homesteading — Urban Homesteading communities that relied on Facebook as their primary way of connecting with their members.
It all sounds so mean-spirited, doesn’t it?
Naturally, it created an uproar.
The inter-webs are aflutter with chat about how wrong, wrong, WRONG it is that the trademark was even granted in the first place. To give the United States Patent & Trademark Office credit, they actually did refuse the Dervaes’ initial application for the trademark back in 2008 because “Many entities provide a variety of print and online publications and services on the same subject matter.” In other words, the Dervaes’ use of the word was not sufficiently distinct to merit a trademark. Of course, rather than backing down, the family then spent the next two years working to prove their distinctiveness. I still don’t understand how they could have done so, given that the requirement for “distinctiveness” is through extensive and exclusive use of the term. (Surely they would have failed the “exclusive” test, right? After all, the term has been in wide, general use since at least the 1970s, if not longer.)
He did want to clarify that – contrary to some rumors – he has not gone after blogs or individuals. “They’re all commercial ventures that rival us,” he said. Because the Dervaeses travel often for workshops and talks, he says, the trademark is applicable outside of their hometown of Los Angeles.
Mr. Dervaes is concerned that his intent has been blown out of proportion by challengers, and says “We didn’t come up the name but we came up with the application.” He says his family spent three years convincing the United States Patent and Trademark Office that their use of the term was unique, and had to appeal several times because it was so similar to “urban home,” a previously trademarked term.
“If someone else would have done it first, all my work of ten years would be in jeopardy,” he adds. “We didn’t mean to bully anyone. These marks are what people do to make sure no one infringes on their ideas – they’re to give people who develop something protection. That’s why people like Apple and Nike do it. We did what other normal people would have done.”
Perhaps it is blown out of proportion. Perhaps he feels like his little family Urban Homestead is unique enough in all the world that it merits the same kind of protection as a corporation like Apple and Nike. Perhaps.
The Dervaes family has said that we should be happy they trademarked the terms because now they can keep them out of the hands of big, bad, evil giant corporations who might want to misuse or abuse them. Okay. I can give them that. But if that’s the case why did they use their newly won trademark to go after people and institutions who are furthering the Urban Homesteading movement? Their actions in the past week certainly paint an unfavorable picture of their motives. And why didn’t they do what those in the Open Source community have done and licensed the terms under something like the GNU or Creative Commons? That would have protected the terms from corporate abuse while preserving the rights of the Urban Homesteading community to continue using the terms to describe themselves.
Ah well. Why am I sharing all of this with you?
If it isn’t already obvious, I should just come out and say that I’m a supporter of the Urban Homesteading movement. I believe the Dervaes family overstepped their proper role by trying to claim credit for a movement they did not start. (And yes, Jules Dervaes actually titles himself the “Founder of the Urban Homestead movement!”). I also believe that it is our duty to preserve our right to use these defining terms rather than trying to coin alternatives. As such, I recently joined a newly created Facebook Group called Take Back Urban Home-Steading(s). You might want to join them, too!
So, let me know what you think about this? Do you feel like the Dervaes family has betrayed your trust? Have they overstepped? Are they innocent victims? Let’s talk!