I don’t know what Jules Dervaes was thinking when he trademarked the phrases “urban homestead” and “urban homesteading.” I don’t know how he managed to convince somebody at the trademark bureau that he was the originator of these terms and of the techniques they cover. He did not originate these terms, nor did he originate the practices they describe. I suppose this is indicative of the vast cultural divide that exists in America: to those of us who have been urban homesteaders over the last forty years, the movement is widespread and deep; to somebody who lives inside the beltway (mentally if not geographically) and commutes to the copyright office, we are apparently invisible, and Dervaes was the first person who brought our movement to his attention.
Anyway, since getting his trademark, Dervaes has been acting like a bully, sending threatening letters to long-established urban homesteading groups and authors, getting Facebook pages banned, and generally making it harder for urban homesteaders to network with each other. Will somebody please put a pie in this guy’s face?
A bizarre twist is that Dervaes shut down these Facebook sites alleging violation of “copyright,” but there is an important legal difference between “trademark” and “copyright.” None of these sites used any of Dervaes’ copyrighted writings, but Facebook shut them down anyway, and says it won’t allow “urban homesteading” pages unless Dervaes withdraws his complaint, which he shows no sign of doing. This is a disturbing precedent for Facebook–does it mean that Monsanto can use its trademark to get Facebook to bump pages like Millions Against Monsanto by OrganicConsumers.org, Say NO to MONSANTO, and Exposing Monsanto, just to name a few?
Fortunately, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has joined the fray on the side of freeing “Urban Homesteading,” putting their considerable legal resources to work and adding the Dervaes Institute to their “Hall of Shame.” (EFF, by the way, was started by Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow….makes me glad “the music never stopped”! )
Dervaes did not originate the term “urban homesteading.” Recently I was looking at a 1980 copy of the Whole Earth Catalog, which has a couple of pages devoted to “urban homesteading.” At Dervaes’ website, a “history” page indicates that in 1980 Jules D.was practicing rural homesteading in Florida, and did not move to Los Angeles and begin homesteading in an urban area until 1985. So no, he didn’t coin the term. And no, I’m not giving you a link to his website. He can toot his own horn. I ain’t gonna help him.
And yes, “urban homestead/ing” is in widespread use. At the “Urban Homestead” website, the opening statement reads, ” Since 1992, we have helped supply home orchardists with some of the best apple trees ever grown.” An internet search yields 258,000 mentions of “urban homesteading,” and the the Dervaes are not at the head of the list. Jealous, Jules? Ruby Blume, of the Oakland Institute of Urban Homesteading, told me in a telephone interview that she had never heard of the Dervaes family before she got a letter from them recently, informing her of their 2010 copyright. Blume’s Institute of Urban Homesteading has been up and running since 2008. She wrote them back, requesting more information and informing them that she intends to contest their trademark. She has yet to receive a reply.
Trademarking “urban homestead” is akin to trademarking “alternative energy” or, for that matter, “home bible study.” For Dervaes to attempt to prevent anyone else from using the term is, simply put, nuts. Bill Mollison couldn’t copyright “permaculture” because it had already be become common enough to be in the dictionary before he applied for the copyright, and he is quite clearly both the inventor of the term and the codifier of the practices involved. The Green Party has been unable to trademark “Green Party” because there is just one other group in the country that calls itself “The Green Party.” There are dozens of authors and local groups who use the phrase “urban homesteading” to describe their work, or in the titles of their books. How could Dervaes get away with such arrogant nonsense?
Even Eric Pelton, the lawyer who helped Dervaes obtain the trademark admitted, in an unrelated interview, that
“Weak trademarks are descriptive or generic words. Generic words like ‘laptop’ for computers or ‘quick subs’ for a sandwich shop are very very weak trademarks and are only entitled to minimal, at best, protection.”
Or “weak, generic terms” like “urban homestead,” for that matter? Just because a lawyer will take your money, doesn’t mean he thinks you’re right. In that light, it’s probably significant that Jules Dervaes, and not Eric Pelton, is the originator of the effort to shut down “rival” urban homesteading sites.
“as the popularity of Urban Homestead and Urban Homesteading increased and began to label everything from television productions to big agriculture products, we couldn’t shake the warning bells in our minds. You tell us… who would you rather own the trademarks? Us or a big business corporation?”
But Dervaes has not gone after big corporations. He has gone after other urban homesteaders who have written books or established educational organizations, a farmers’ market, Facebook groups of urban homesteaders, a library, and a community radio station. No big guys, just little guys. In the press release I just quoted, Dervaes ironically refers to Wikipedia to define what he is doing, rather than to anything he wrote himself. The Wiki article has numerous links to urban homesteading sites, but only mentions Dervaes in relation to his effort to trademark the term.
Can you say “credibility gap,” boys and girls?
Some of what this story is about is that urban homesteading, as most of us who engage in or encourage the practice are aware, is not just a set of material techniques. The urban homesteading movement–and the rural homesteading movement, too, for that matter–is about creating a community, and about creating community consciousness. The Dervaes family, in contrast, has never had much to say about creating community.
Nobody else who uses the term ” urban homesteading” has attempted to trademark it because it makes no sense to most of us to get territorial over language. Creative Commons is more our style than copyright and trademark.
At a deeper level, too, Dervaes’ ego trip demonstrates that technique is not enough. To create a new paradigm, we need to purify our own consciousness first, or we will just end up creating the same mess we were attempting to escape.
This story also fits into a still wider question, the question of “intellectual property rights.” I don’t have time to go deeply into this issue right now, but here’s a quickie about it:
There’s a place for intellectual property rights. If you actually create a technology or a piece of music or a book or a photograph, you should be able to control its use. Part of that control should certainly involve getting paid for your effort and inspiration if somebody else is using it to make money for themselves. It’s OK to prevent others from stealing the results of your own efforts.
Our trademark and copyright laws, however, have been taken to such an extreme that they threaten to cut us off from our cultural heritage. For instance, if you want to perform or record a Beatles song, you have to make arrangements with the estate of Michael Jackson, who bought the Beatles’ song rights in 1985. Even if you have no plans to make money from use of a Beatles song, you must pay to perform or record it. Never mind that Paul and John’s heirs will do fine for the rest of their lives and then some without another penny of royalties, and that most of the money actually goes to a bunch of lawyers. You got to pay,
Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, won my cheers when, in an interview on NPR, he said that he would love to buy the rights to the Beatles’ songs and release them into the public domain so that everybody could play them. Then the economy fell apart, and it never happened, but it was one of those great radio moments.
Another example–some friends of mine are trying to put on a grassroots music festival, which they are calling “The Black Swan Alternative Arts and Music Festival.” It’s really more of a big open party than a commercial event, BUT they are getting hassled by ASCAP to pay royalties up front, even though most, if not all, the music that will be played will be originals, if not downright improvised on the spot, and most of the bands are playing for free. My friends are just a couple of poor hippies trying to throw a party, and they’re getting jacked around, held to standards that are pretty irrelevant to what they’re trying to do by an outfit that, like that hapless dude in the copyright bureau, hasn’t got a clue about what’s going on out here on the other side of the cultural divide.
My standard answer to bureaucratic hassles like the Dervaes’ stink bombs and ASCAP’s legal threats is that the system that upholds such bizarre legalities is already coming apart at the seams, or, as with the mega-earthquake in Japan the other day, the fault lines, and all we have to do is be patient.
But even a creature in its death throes can do some damage. Sometimes we can’t ignore crassness and stupidity, because they thrust themselves in our faces, our websites, our wallets, or sometimes even our pants. (Can you say “‘right to life’”, boys and girls?)
At such times, we have to depend on whatever level of inner peace and stability we have built into ourselves, trust that we will respond as appropriately as we can, pay close attention, and learn from what happens so that we, unlike so many in our crazed society, don’t end up doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different result.
In urban homesteading, just likethe rest of life, the most important thing to cultivate is our own sanity.
music: The Beatles, “I, Me, Me, Mine”