Urban Homestead: Trend or Trademark?

A story has been making a lot of buzz over the past couple days. In October of last year, the Dervaes family, of Homestead in the City in Pasadena, have acquired registered trademark status for both "Urban Homestead" and "Urban Homesteading" -- and have been sending notifications to blogs and other sites that use those terms to either change the usage or apply the ® symbol and give credit to them for it. 

A kerfuffle ensued, with people immediately rising to arms to defend the use of the terms as descriptors of a cultural phenomenon, not of a singular business or practice. An (awkwardly named) Facebook group sprung up to Take Back Urban Home-steading(s), and folks have been going out of their way to use the terms in defiance of the action. 

The Dervaeses have volleyed back on their blog, but with some specious logic. In one post, Anais debunks that they've been sending "cease and desist" notices, running the entirety of the "normal, professional and informative letter" that they've been sending to those who use the terms. While the words "cease and desist" do not techincally appear in the letter, it does specify that "if your use of one of these phrases is not to specifically identify products or services from the Dervaes Institute, then it would be proper to use generic terms" and then goes so far as to suggest alternative language for you to use. Anais' contentious tone at the beginning to "please find" the cease and desist language in the letter and the subsequent post titled "Truth for a Change" don't win her any friends, either. 

They go on to attempt to clarify their legal position, but in the end may continue to unravel their stance. Speaking to the points of how a trademarked phrase can be used, they say, "You can have an urban farm that practices urban homesteading techniques and use biodynamic compost: THIS IS NOT A TRADEMARK VIOLATION. However, if you publish an urban farm magazine, commercially promote urban homesteading or sell biodynamic compost:  THIS IS A TRADEMARK VIOLATION." 

This much is absolutely true, and so does not bode well for businesses like Oakland's Institute of Urban Homesteading. That could in fact create confusion in the marketplace, in that the IUH is not teaching the Dervaeses' practices specifically. This pains me on a personal level, as I've taken a cheesemaking class at IUH, and would hate to see Ruby's business suffer, which it certainly will. Already,  as a result of action on the part of the Dervaeses, her Facebook page has been blocked -- a great limitation for a small business. 

More baffling, however, are that the letters were sent to Evan Kleiman at KCRW's Good Food and the Santa Monica Public Library, both public institutions and both who have featured the Dervaeses in past events. 

Personally, I never liked the term "urban homesteading" to describe the current phenomenon. On the one hand, not everyone who's involved in it lives in an urban environment, and on the other, "homesteading" makes me feel like I should be wearing a calico frock. But the fact remains that the phrase has been in the common vernacular for some time -- the OC Weekly states that it's been documented in newspapers since at least the 1980s -- some 20 years prior to the Dervaes' filing. 

To my mind, the US Patent and Trademark Office made an error in judgment in allowing these terms to be trademarked because of exactly that. In fact, the Dervaes' filing had been previously denied for that reason. Nicole of FARMcurious did a little digging, and found that "on Dec 9, 2008 their original application was refused because 'Many entities provide a variety of print and online publications and services on the same subject matter.' In order to execute their trademark application, they had to go back and show evidence that they had 'acquired distinctiveness' through exclusive (which we know to be untrue) and extensive (which is not deniable) use of the term.  What I don’t understand is why the application was approved in the end; even though they could show extensive use, they certainly couldn’t demonstrate exclusive use of the term." Best evidence: A book titled The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-sufficient Living in the Heart of the City, written by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutsen, was published in June of 2008. The cat was clearly well and truly out of the bag. 

Internet justice is swift and often cruel, and the Dervaeses have hunkered down in the storm. They've taken down the Facebook page for Path to Freedom (the actual name of their family business) and have blocked comments on any blog posts around the trademark matter. While I understand they were surely suffering unfair and unwarranted berating, in this age of social expression, it's rarely a good idea to shut the door so firmly. It seems like there should be an appropriate venue for  them to air their stance and allow healthy debate, or at least let commenters vent their spleens and be done with it. 

Considering the virulence with which the Cooks Source scandal was met last year, wherein a small magazine was literally crushed out of existence by the angry mobs, you'd think the Dervaes would be more contrite and flexible in their response to the outrage. Arrogance and superiority rarely fly well in social media. 

What do you think? 

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