Note: The breadth of phrases and URLs trademarked or registered by the Dervaes Institute, and used in different sections of the urbanhomestead.org website, or by its subsidiaries and offshoots, is dizzying. Additionally, much of the online commentary has alluded to what “the Dervaes family” has done or stated even though it is not possible to know the private inner workings of the Dervaeses as a family. To be consistent and in an attempt to sling as little mud as possible, in this post I will refer whenever possible to the Dervaes Institute, or the Institute.
Language and terminology are an unavoidable part of the food movement. As a social cause rallied against agricultural practices deemed vile and reprehensible, in favor of methods moral and healthful, making distinctions is an important organizing tool. Thus the food movement lexicon is immense — organic, biodynamic, no-spray, cage-free, free-range, heirloom, open-pollinated, GMO, pastured, rGBH, grass-fed, to name only a few. And debate over how terms are defined and used has been an ongoing internal struggle of the movement.
Two very particular bits of language, namely the phrases urban homestead and urban homesteading, and who has the right to use those terms, have been fulminating controversy amongst food activists since late last week. It was revealed that since June 2, 2009 the trademark to the term Urban Homesteading has been held by a non-profit group called the Dervaes Institute and that the Institute acquired the trademark to Urban Homestead on October 5, 2010. Attention to the trademark was drawn via an “informational letter” sent to potential trademark infringers and the fervent activity, largely on the internet, that ensued.
As the story broke, several news outlets, including OCWeekly, BayCitizen, and LAWeekly, have already given accounts of how the controversy unfolded. Since the saga is so fascinating in its plot turns, especially how it developed in the online food activist community (of which Agrariana is a part) I hope readers will indulge a brief rundown of the events.
On February 13 a letter arrived in the mailbox of K. Ruby Blume of Oakland. The letter’s stated purpose was to “inform you of important matters regarding the published works and/or brand names of Jules Dervaes and Dervaes Institute” and that the Dervaes Institute owns trademarks to URBAN HOMESTEAD®, URBAN HOMESTEADING®, PATH TO FREEDOM®, GROW THE FUTURE®, HOMEGROWN REVOLUTION®, FREEDOM GARDENS®, LITTLE HOMESTEAD IN THE CITY® and has filed a copyright claim to “The Ten Elements of Urban Homesteading.”
The Dervaes Institute is the non-profit of the Pasadena, California-based team of urban farming and radical homemaking proponents, led by patriarch Jules Dervaes and including his three adult children, Justin, Anais, and Jordanne. The Dervaeses have aggressively transformed their yard to produce as much food as possible, several thousand pounds a year. The Institute has an extensive website and blog, does community outreach activities, and the family is featured in the documentary film HomeGrown, winner of the People’s Choice Award at the 2010 Wild and Scenic Film Festival. Lengthy profiles of the family have appeared in the LA Times and The Telegraph.
Blume received the letter as notice that her Institute of Urban Homesteading (IUH) website (iuhoakland.com) and the website of her soon to be released book with coauthor Rachel Kaplan, Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living (urban-homesteading.org) could be infringing on the trademarks held by the Dervaes Institute. After a brief synopsis of the Institute’s history and work, the letter acknowledged that infringement of the Institute’s trademarks may have been “inadvertent” and gave instructions on how to credit the Institute’s work and materials, so that the issue could be resolved without the Institute “involving our legal counsel.” It suggested that if use of any of the trademarked phrases did not refer specifically to Dervaes Institute products or services, it would be “proper to use generic terms…such as ‘modern homesteading,’ ‘urban sustainability projects,’ or similar descriptions.” Any use of the trademarked phrases requires the trademark notice (®) and a note in close proximity that the phrase is a protected trademark of Dervaes Institute. Blume said of the letter, “I didn’t really know what to make of it.”
Then on February 14, Blume received an email from Facebook administrators stating the pages for IUH and for her book were being suspended for suspected trademark infringement. When Blume logged into Facebook, an acknowledgment notice popped up and when she clicked it, the pages were gone in an instant.
By this time, others using the phrases urban homestead or urban homesteading were reporting having their Facebook pages disabled and/or had received letters from the Institute. The Facebook page for Denver Urban Homesteading, a market and educational center, was disabled, as was the page for the book The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Eric Knutzen. FeralHouse Publishing/Process Media, publishers of The Urban Homestead, received a letter, as did blogger Jamie Milks about her website The Urban Homestead Experiment. A panel discussion on urban homesteading was held February 10, 2011, moderated by Evan Kleiman of KCRW’s Good Food and co-sponsored by the Santa Monica Farmers Market and the Santa Monica Public Library and one or more of the organizations involved reportedly received letters also. Google also apparently was sent a letter regarding trademarked content that appeared in searches.
Once the various so-called infringers found out this was happening to others and made connections, they realized that the actions of the Institute constituted an attempted takeover of phrases believed to be held in common, and that immediate action was necessary. Blume sent an email to IUH’s 1500-member mailing list explaining the issue and asking for support, stating “I simply think it is wrong for one group to own the name of an entire movement! and profit from it.” Others reached out to their supporters by whatever means still at their disposal. Then the proverbial backyard chicken shit hit the fan.
April Krieger of Eureka, California created a Facebook fan page called ‘Take Back Urban Home-steading(s)’ with intentional spelling idiosyncrasies to circumvent the trademark policy. The page gained 1000 ‘likes’ in 24 hours and stands at over 4000 fans as of Monday. Twitter accounts started buzzing with the hashtag #dumpthedervaeses. On change.org a petition went up to ‘Cancel Trademarks on Urban Homestead and Urban Homesteading’ and now has more than 1000 signers. OCWeekly blogger Gustavo Arellano was an early and particularly strident voice, calling the Dervaeses ‘dingbats,’ ‘sanctimonious,’ and ‘tools’ and getting quotes from Feral House’s Adam Parfrey comparing Jules Dervaes to David Koresh and Ted Kaczynski. A summary of what had been blogged to date on the blog Seasons in the Soil noted a “cult-like vibe” from the Telegraph profile in which Jules Dervaes “asked the children to put their romantic lives on hold ‘until we can make a move’.” The blog also had links to fringe religious writings attributed to Jules Dervaes. Monday, February 21 was designated “Urban Homesteading Day,” a day of action on the issue.
Amidst the flurry of negative attention, the Dervaes Institute fired back in a series of posts on the group’s blog and in a press release. The Institute clarified that they, not their legal counsel, sent a total of 16 letters, they are not suing anyone, and defied critics to find the words “cease-and-desist” in the letters received by IUH and others. The Institute maintained that “While they did not come up with the name Urban Homesteading®, they defined its current, specific application” which lead them to seek the protection of a trademark. The Institute also warned of phishing emails, falsely attributed to the Dervaes Institute, telling bloggers to “pay up or stop” in an attempt to extort money. Comments on the Institute’s blog and the group’s Facebook page were disabled to protect fans and the family from “threats and harassment” until “cooler heads prevail.” The LAWeekly piece claimed tweet from the Institute (now deleted) that the family had received a death threat. None of the rumors of phishing, death threats, or similar hearsay could be confirmed independently at this time. The Institute’s blog also complained that bloggers who didn’t substantiate their facts before publishing had made slanderous comments and that many writing about the story hadn’t the “common courtesy” to get the Institute’s side of the story and were victims of the “Rumor Mill.”
After sifting through all the intrigue and hyperbole that have been generated in the last few days, real questions remain, not the least of which is ‘Does the Dervaes Institute have a legal leg to stand on?’ Trademark law and regulations are not exactly transparent, nor do they always follow logic, so I attempted to no avail to locate an expert in trademark law to comment on the issue. The Urban Homestead authors Coyne and Knutzen and their publisher Process Media have apparently had better luck. They found representation from Corynne McSherry, Intellectual Property Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), who on Monday posted on the EFF blog that the Institute’s claims were baseless and included a copy of the scathing letter emailed to the Dervaes Institute demanding the Institute take action to reverse the shutdowns it had caused or face legal action.
The story continues in Part II.