There’s been a bit of a hubbub online lately about the Dervais Institute’s trademarking of the terms “urban homestead” and “urban homesteading” and their subsequent attempts to get bloggers and organizations to stop using these general terms. This would be totally laughable were it not for the fact that they succeeded in getting the facebook pages of organizations using the words in their titles pulled. They’ve also apparently sent a letter to google contesting (presumably in the inclusion of search results) an amazon author page that includes the book The Urban Homestead. The book was published in June, 2008. Dervaes Institute filed their trademark registration for “urban homestead” in September, 2008. Unsurprisingly, this sort of behavior has led to a rather large backlash against the family and their urban homesteading blog.
On their blog they claim that they did not actually send out cease and desist letters. However, the letter that they show clearly states that if you’re referring to them and their services on your blog you should add the trademark symbol and link to their website. And if you aren’t? Well then you it’s “proper,” they say, to use a more general term. One example of a more general phrase they give is “modern homesteading.” The problem, though, is that urban homesteading is a general term that predates any of their published work. Mother Earth News, for instance, used the term in the 1970s. (As a side note they don’t advertise on their website so I have no problem with sending plenty of traffic their way. People should read what they’re actually saying and they won’t make any money off it).
This would be nothing more than a somewhat amusing case of a business entity trying to enforce rights their trademark doesn’t actually give them were it not for the reasons that the Dervaes family gives for having pursued the trademarks in the first place. On the faq on their website they note their concern at big business using the phrases “urban homestead” and “urban homesteading” in green-washing campaigns. They claim that they trademarked the phrases for the good of the movement, to prevent big businesses from taking ownership of the phrases and taking them from the people. I wonder if the people they had in mind would include the Institute of Urban Homesteading in Oakland? Their facebook page was shut down because the Dervaes family complained and claimed it was a violation of their trademark. Arguably, given that the institute is giving classes and such they are in direct competition with the Pasadena-based Dervaes Institute. However, trademarking a term as general as urban homesteading, which was used frequently before you even began writing about it, and then going after others writing about it in the same way is pretty much akin to a business that serves pizza trademarking “pizza parlour” and then going after everyone else using that as part of their name.
The LA Weekly blog has a nice discussion of the whole thing. Ultimately what it comes down to in my mind is the fact that strategies involved with being a savvy business person are very often directly at odds with the strategies involved with widely promoting a social movement. This, by the way, is why I laugh at people who trot out Google’s old “don’t be evil” motto. Evil has nothing to do with it. The very point of publicly-traded corporations is to make money for their share-holders. And the way the rules are currently set up, often doing things that will maximize profit look evil. That strikes me more as an indictment of the system than it is of the corporations within it. On the other hand, insisting that you’re trying to promote a social movement and stand up for the little people when you’re behaving like a savvy, but blood-thirsty business person? It may not be evil, but it’s certainly hypocritical.
The other thing that jumps out at me about this situation is that Facebook’s policy seems to be act now ask questions later. So even if none of the organizations that have had their page pulled were actually infringing on the trademark in any way that would hold up in court, their pages are still down. The lesson here, seems to me to be that if you’re running a business and need to communicate online for said business, make sure you’re doing so someplace that you host and have more control over. Sure, have a facebook page but don’t make that be the primary place that you’re publicizing.
*I’ll note as an aside that I’m a gardener. I’m not urban homesteading (or suburban homesteading given that I live in an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County). I grow a little bit of food because I enjoy it. I don’t necessarily think that personal food-production is the revolution we need for food security (or any of the other food-related social problems that exist or may exist in the future). It’s not my movement but as someone interested in gardening and food and what local people are up to, I happened to follow the Dervaes facebook page (since removed) and came upon the controversy. Whatever I may happen to think of the politics of urban homesteading as a movement for social change, I still recognize it as a movement largely independent of what the Dervaes family has accomplished on their Pasadena lot (which is, undoubtedly, impressive; but then again if I had four adults working full-time on my yard it would be a paradise too). As for revolution, if it’s trademarked and/or a major source of profit, I’m going to go out on a limb and say it probably doesn’t fit my definition of revolution.