Can You Trademark the Urban Self-Sufficiency Movement?

John Reinhardt is founder of Grown in the City

Urban Homestead®. There, I said it. But according to the Dervaese family, the use of the term “urban homestead” is infringing on their trademark- a trademark that received its registration certificate only in October, 2010.

Sparked by a story first broken by Gustavo Arellano in OCWeekly,  the internet gardening community has been abuzz since it was revealed on the OCWeekly blog that the family was issuing “cease and desist” letters to bloggers, website owners, authors, and even libraries that use the term urban homestead, or carry books with that title. It seems a bit odd that the family has sought out the community that supported its rise to notoriety (the family runs several websites and makes money off of home tours, filming, and selling their organic produce).

The reaction has been so poor that there are Facebook groups and twitter hashtags (#DumptheDervaeses) that call for the family to apologize to the gardening community. After all, many argue, can you trademark general principles that have existed for centuries?

According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark office you can, but should the family be acting on this trademark? Many companies have fought for their brands, such as Xerox, Kleenex, Hoover, and Tupperware, from being subsumed into popular culture and used as the generic term for the object, while newer companies, such as Google and Twitter, which deal with information and concepts, have somewhat embraced this. Does Google go after everyone who says “I ‘googled’ it?” No.

I think this is where much of the anger comes from – the Dervaeses have trademarked words to describe concepts that have existed for generations – from producing your own food and energy, to raising your own livestock.

According to LAWeekly:

This past week, the Dervaes Institute, the parent organization run by the Dervaes family, started sending out “normal, professional and informative” letters to anyone using the following trademarked terms: URBAN HOMESTEAD®, URBAN HOMESTEADING®, PATH TO FREEDOM®, GROW THE FUTURE®, HOMEGROWN REVOLUTION®, FREEDOM GARDENS®, LITTLE HOMESTEAD IN THE CITY® (the last one is pending, but it’s included on the original letter.). They also asked Facebook to take down pages that violated their trademark, which Facebook has done.

The situation has escalated, with the Dervaes family shutting down their own Facebook account and claiming harassment of themselves and their friends. The family has issued its own statement, stating:

Please find the ‘cease & desist’  phrase in this normal, professional and informative letter.   It’s a false, made up claim that people are jumping over themselves to make us look bad.

The opposition has not been quiet, even going as far as starting a petition on change.org to cancel the trademark of “Urban Homestead.”

Should the phrase have been allowed to be copyrighted? The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has already decided that. What so many find questionable, I believe, is how the family has gone about enforcing their trademark. In the internet/information age, should we be able to trademark and copyright ideas and images that have existed in the public imagination for a while or were created through a collaboration of many people, over many years?  (Law rence Lessig explores these questions in his great book, Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity)

That is a much larger and more complex question, which delves into the furthest depths of ethics and law. It’s no wonder the patenting, trademarking, and copyrighting of information is also tied to the outrage over genetically modified crops and seeds.

How will the story end? It’s unclear at this point, but it will certainly be interesting to find out what happens when the dust clears.

Image courtesy of Pilgrim Girl on flickr

  • Randy Bosch

    Important story and object lesson, thank you. It’s deja vu all over again. Because something is possible does not make it good. Because something is legal does not make it ethical. I cannot judge this case. As a general rule, however, a concept or term or “thing” that can be clearly demonstrated to have been in the public domain for years needs to be protected against copyright and trademark. Otherwise, it is like a reverse eminent domain action against what is publically “owned” to return it to private use only.

  • Angela

    I believe the bloggers and other media outlets are responsible for not correctly reporting the story and not investigating the facts.This has perpetuated a distortion of what actually happened and what the Dervaes actually did.

    The Dervaes Letter sent out was to notify those who were using the terms for business or commercial purposes that the terms were now trademarked. Therefore, the Dervaes Institute was instructing on the proper use of the mark in a business or commercial sense. To say this letter took away the rights of the general public and was forbidding them to use the term without the Dervaes permission is unfair and unfounded..