The war horses are out and snorting a dust-up in the world of, uh…how shall I say this?…of, er, city-dwelling folks who garden and stuff.
The brouhaha pits long-time (and apparently official) urban homesteaders the Dervaes family of Pasadena, California against…well, just about everybody else who would lay claim to the term “urban homestead” or “urban homesteading.”
From what I can glean, the Dervaeses, notable pioneers in the self-sufficiency and sustainability movement, have rattled the chains of bloggers and on-the-ground doers in the loose but connected community of urban dwelling sustainability aficionados (or what I like to call Urbane Homesteaders, patent pending).
Under the auspices of their non-profit city-dwelling showcase home and farm, which is variously called Path to Freedom Urban Homestead and/or The Dervaes Institute, Julian Dervaes and company issued a letter detailing their copyrights and their expectation that when anyone used the terms “urban homestead” or “urban homesteading,” the proper trademark designation would need to follow the terminology.
They reasoned that for the purpose of clarity behind the meaning of such terms, and proper credit for their contribution to the folks-who-grow-food-and-generate-fuel-while-simultaneously-living-in-a-city movement, such trademark protection was necessary.
But as Stick a Fork In It blogger Gustavo Arellano notes, the Dervaeses maintained on their website that the trademark requirement was also in the best interest of all citified grub-growers. “You tell us,” they asked, “who would you rather own the trademarks? Us or a big business corporation?”
If Julian Dervaes is asking fellow urban(e) homesteaders whom they would prefer to be their lord and master on the trademark front, he’s being widely rejected across the Internet by the very folks he hopes to court. And that doesn’t do a lot for gaining a following on the information he wishes to share. It doesn’t help tee shirt and book sales either.
Besides, if it’s just about owning a trademark to protect others from evil corporations, the Dervaeses would not require its use for their purposes, but rather, they’d not mention it at all.
The Monsanto® seed of city farmers?
It’s understandable in this dog-eat-dog world that creative types want to pierce through the info glut and emerge victorious on the thought-leadership front. After all, this is what helps put money in the bank. In that the Dervaeses are no different than any other hard working people.
And in a world of information manipulation it’s true that meanings are too often distorted so that greedy capitalists can sell back to us watered-down versions of the very ideas we first created for the public good, or at least just for fun.
But everything old is new again, as the Dervaeses have shown us.
After all, there have been people growing their own food in cities since the beginning of civilization. Presumably we’re meant to believe the Family Dervaes owes no back pay to the descendants of the urban homesteaders of yore, or even those found throughout the developing world today from Bangladesh to Buenos Aires. Nor to others who are doing the same work, and documenting it, but not getting down to the patent office as quickly.
However, we’re not in the time of yore. After half a century of back-to-the-land movements, a phrase like “urban homestead” has by now entered the larger lexicon of shared experience as a cultural phenomenon, rather than either an object, a body of work, or a product like, say, Xerox or Kleenex.
Oh wait, sorry, those have entered everyday language too, despite the best efforts of armies of Gucci-loafered trademark attorneys.
Yet according to Good magazine, bloggers and authors have received letters from the Dervaeses or their lawyers telling them to stop using the term urban homesteading or to use the Dervaes’ trademark when they do.
The Dervaeses counter that while the trademark information posted on their website is true, letters warning about unauthorized use of the term “urban homesteading” and purporting to be from the family, as well as attacks on Facebook pages are a hoax. The Dervaeses accuse activists of taking false action and stirring up rumors designed to make the family look bad.
But popular opinion seems to have settled against the Dervaeses. And even if they were innocent of sending cease and desist letters, the whole trademark thing runs counter to the open-source culture in the urban homesteading movement.
Share and share alike
Further, in today’s Web 2.0 world, driven as it is by social media, a new ethos governs communication. The growth of spontaneously viral movements stand as powerful counter forces to the weight of restrictive corporate or government control.
Witness Egypt’s recent revolution. Its underlying swell was driven by sharing the news of where to cluster and how long to stay, come what may. Texting, Twittering, blogging and Facebooking allowed urban revolution-steading to happen in ways that were unthinkable in the past and were not owned by any one agitating body. Now imagine having to figure out which key combo on your Blackberry you need to press in order to legitimately tweet #Egypt Revolt Now® Meet @Tahrir!?
To their credit, the Dervaeses do seem to understand this a tiny bit.
On a FAQ on their website they say about the terms urban homesteading and urban homestead, “If you aren’t using it to make money and are simply documenting your life or sharing your journey or information, this would be fine. In fact, we encourage it.”
That alone should quell this ballyhoo, at least technically.
But “technical” fixes are what got the Dervaeses in trouble with the larger urban homesteading movement in the first place. Apparently they didn’t ponder the old saying, “don’t trouble trouble until trouble troubles you.”
By coming out, if you will, about what they didn’t want people to do, they just made themselves look bad, even greedy and self serving. They might not be any of those things, but clearly to a lot of people, it appears that way. After all, the getting money part is reserved just for them.
Perhaps Team Dervaes is so hot now that they need an image consultant before releasing their next public business move?
Insult to injury
While the Dervaeses have made considerable contributions to the landscape of shared understanding on DIY sustainability while also living on the Metro Gold Line, they seemed to have missed the boat on what it means to contextualize this knowledge in a larger cultural paradigm that operates not only against actual corporate control, but also against the tools of oppression and dis-empowerment inherent in the means of corporate control.
While Papa Dervaes and his family might not understand the backlash, blaming it on ill-informed bloggers is not the way to straighten out the mess. According to a Dervaes Institute press release
Blogging is often confused with reporting; and there are now cases where people have engaged in a negative blogging campaign aimed at discrediting the Dervaes family. Whereas professional reporters substantiate their news before publishing stories and are careful not to make slanderous statements, bloggers have no editors and often demonstrate little or no interest in supporting their claims with fact. As a result, irresponsible or malicious blogging can cause harm to people and businesses.
It is true that a new media landscape has changed the way information is shared. And on this story in particular, it appears tweeters got a little trigger happy without necessarily vetting all the facts.
But the myth of objective journalism is just as big an obstacle as slack fact-checking to our understanding of “truth” and “fairness.” Not only has no such prevailing trend of objective journalism ever existed (whatever they teach at J schools these days), but our major media outlets themselves are rife with slanted reporting. Take five minutes on an average Fox News report and let’s talk about fact checking and accuracy.
Blaming the new urban homesteading dust up on bloggers seems like just another misstep in the Dervaes’ clumsy communications campaign to stake their claim and eat it too.
Neither this nor that, but still a mess
Imagine if every time we were talking about anything like BackyardChickens® or CanningVegetables® or NursingOurBabies® we had to put the trademark in? Where does it end? Enforced copyright and trademark demands may not be the actual cause of the fracas, but it is the perceived cause of it. Therein lies the trouble.
The Dervaeses have aimed to make clear that when referencing their stuff directly, the trademark and/or copyright should be used, however off-putting folks might find that. But with “scraper” websites plaguing all creators of original online content, anyone doing anything on the Web has to just accept a certain amount of trolling for content without breaking out the lawyer talk. The Dervaeses should have considered that.
Their claims to ownership of the terms “urban homestead” and “urban homesteading” are different however, from a movement that exists on its own, independent of anything the Dervaeses may have done within the movement. That’s the problem your average urban homesteader has with the Dervaes’ actions. It reads like selfish, crass bullying by a family they would otherwise admire.
Until that’s resolved though, surely clear-headed individuals can see that the Dervaes’ henchmen wont be shutting down every downtowner’s blog about an early-girl tomato crop even if you do say urban homestead sans the trademark. It’s just unrealistic.
Finally, we can all appreciate the notion of intellectual property where it is mutually agreed that said intellectual property exists and is actually the purview of the said claimant. We’ve been down this road with Napster and the music industry. But beyond one’s own published texts, is teaching how to can veggies or sharing how to’s on taking your outfit from farm to fork really the same as writing Smells Like Teen Spirit? And in spite of millennia of Buddhist and Hindu references to that happy place, should Nirvana have actually claimed the name Nirvana®?
Their awkward effort at protecting their intellectual property just made the Dervaes’ otherwise-promising local food project look uncool. And like it or not, in a world of social media driven by a sharing ethic, that matters.