Thursday, February 17, 2011

An Open Letter to the Dervaes'

Well it is a mighty fine mess you have created. Yes, Dervaes family,, you have really managed to do something profound to the community you helped create.

You have chosen to trademark a whole host of terms, ostensibly seeking to protect them from those who would misuse and abuse them for their own profit. I’ve got some respect for this – after all, it is easy enough to imagine the Monsanto Urban Homesteader collection of seeds or the Lowe’s Urban Homesteader Twice-A-Year Sale.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with this.

First off, you weren’t there first. A quick bit of online research finds the phrase “urban homestead” in some variation or the other dating back to the 1970s or before. But the legitimacy of your claim isn't the greatest issue here.

The urban homesteading movement (by whatever name you wish it to go by) is a tenuous thing. We are decentralized. We come from a range of social, political, and moral backgrounds. We’ve come to this for a variety of reasons: health, environment, economics, survival, enjoyment. We practice in varied ways as suit our varied natures and regions: poultry, fruit, vegetables, livestock, dairy.

We run the risk of appearing as freaks and finding ourselves further marginalized just as we are gaining traction and awareness.

So here we stand, not on the cusp of victory by any means, but on the cusp of moving to a greater playing field. The values we espouse are being picked up by authors, chefs, and social commentators and spreading to an ever broader audience. The tools and supplies we need are available more easily as more and more people show an interest in a backyard orchard or some raised beds or a chicken coop. Laws are making it easier for us to practice what we believe in (I’m talking about how my town repealed a ban on backyard poultry last year…but I’m sure there are others).

Just as things start to take off, do we really want to risk going from respect to mockery? Think of it this way: which headline would you rather see CNN or The New York Times run next week?

In yards around the nation, Urban Homesteading taking off!


Urban gardens taking off, but don’t call them homesteads!

Do we want to risk drifting into that part of the news day usually called “the lighter side” where mainstream America pokes fun (often deservedly) at people who lie just a little too far outside the bell curve or normality?

Perhaps even more critically, do we want to see the common idea that binds us together torn asunder because of the lack of a word, an all important linguistic thread that weaves between all of our diverse backgrounds, motivations, and interests? For words have meaning and power well beyond their superficial sounds and definitions. They provide identity, meaning, and community. They define and establish boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. Their proper use is a Shibboleth demarking true believers from tourists and pretenders.

Do we want to risk Balkanizing ourselves into urban homesteaders, city farmers, metropolitan agronomists, backyard growers, and the hundreds of other permutations I could devise, each one separated by a shade of meaning, a subtlety of belief or background or motivation? “Oh no, I’m not a city farmer, those are people with apartments. I’m a metropolitan agronomist because I practice square-foot techniques outside of the city core.”

Hyperbole on my part? Yes, but exaggeration and humor to make a point.

So perhaps, Derveases, we misunderstood you and your intentions were pure if ill communicated. Personally, I don’t think you were trying to shut down the use of the words Urban and Homesteading. I think you were trying to drive site (and store) traffic by intimidating bloggers, libraries, and authors into offering you a credit and a link. But my suspicious are beside the point.

Your blog posts and tweets profess surprise at the community’s reaction and accuse those of us with some spleen to vent of misunderstanding your intentions. They read accusingly, saying that this misunderstanding is our fault. They make us feel bad for the hurt they have caused your family, the tears brought on by our impassioned words.

Then why, I ask, were your first attempts to control the use of these terms targeted at a library and a blogger? Why do you respond with a series of defensive tweets and a blog update that cries out how hard this has been on you?

Welcome to the big time, Urban Homestead. Success is a bitch, that high profile you’ve worked to build up means there are a lot of people watching you – but that’s what you wanted, right? You came across as the big bad, swinging a legal claim, no matter how indefensible it may be, to get your way and get your due credit. People reacted in a way you didn't expect (really?), in a way that hurt you.

And the result has been bad, very bad. Whether you intended to deny use of these terms to the community at large or not, that is how we have understood your actions. And that is what is driving our reaction.

The point is that your actions, however they were intended, have jeopardized the movement you helped spawn. Your intentions are irrelevant. The results of your implementation and the broader community’s perception of that implementation are what matter – and the perception of that perception, but I risk losing my way. You have children and so know that intentions count for only so much. Results, whether those intended or expected or not, are what matter. And so you must choose your future actions based not around your professed or actual intent but around the reality in which you find yourself – an unpleasant reality with no easy choices.

And it is by those actions that the rest of us urban homesteaders, who owe you so much, will judge you and assess your intentions.

How should you react now that you’ve enraged a good portion of the community? Your blog and tweets profess surprise at this reaction, accuse us of misunderstanding your intentions.

I’m going to assume that you genuinely believe in the movement of which you have been such a part and that you have the best interest of that movement at heart – and you should, for to try to put your own business success ahead of that of the movement at large is to jeopardize not only your relationship with the movement but the very success of the movement itself. And I hope that you recognize this relationship and do what is best not for your own short-sighted gain but rather for the continued growth of this community and your relationship with it.

What you need to do is take charge of this situation. Yes, I said take charge. After accusing you of heavy handedness (intentional or not) why do I say you should take charge?

Because you have a window of opportunity to try and save some face. You will never regain the full respect you had in the community, but that’s done. Time for damage control, time for clear words and clear actions. Time to do things that will not be misunderstood (again).

Cede the word to the community.

Stand up and in clear simple words admit that you erred:

Say “we never intended to deny the broader use of these words.”

Say “but unfortunately our actions were misunderstood.”

Say “we never anticipated the depth of feeling our actions would arouse.”

Say “but observing the passion of the community we helped foster is as gratifying as it has been troubling.”

Say “and so we waive our claim to these trademarks.”

Say “we recognize that these phrases are something larger than our family and our farm.”

Say “these words are our movement and they are your movement.”

And then shut the hell up.

We will have our community. There is the risk that these words will get misused, co-opted. But we do not need your protection and we know what an urban homestead really is without your oversight and editing.

As it stands right now, your website leaves you an opening. Make that promised press release a thing of nobility, of admission, and of generosity. Play it right and you might even come out looking pretty good.

I fear that you will take one of the easier paths. Perhaps you will take the easiest, that of stepping away from the issue, never following up on your letters, of hoping that things die down. And they might. Your reputation will never rebuild, not with those of us who live at the core of this movement. We’ll make jokes. We’ll refer to someone as “pulling a Dervaes” when they try a petty trade marking or some cheesy legal intimidation.

There is another path I fear, one that is harder for you and worse for the community. It is the path of pride, of stonewalling and digging in. Of perceiving the community’s response as some sort of a threat to some position of hierarchy that you believe you deserve. This is the path that leads to mockery of our movement, of factionalized collapse into urban homesteaders vs. metropolitan farmers vs. city gardeners. This is the path that leads to a legal fight you will not win, that will only drain your finances and threaten your very livelihood.

So I ask you, think it through. Make a decision, a tough decision. Retake what you can of the leadership you had in this community. Give us that community, without a fight, without shame, and without guilt.

As I write this, your latest blog entry is "we are urban homesteaders." I do not deny that. But so are we.

UPDATED 2/18/2011

For starters I want to thank everyone for their kind comments. I'm glad I could help lend some voice to everyone's emotions.

I deliberately tried to keep the issue of the legitimacy of the Dervaes' claims - whether legal or moral - out of this. For starters the two are quite different - they might legally be able to maintain control over a trademark that we do not feel they morally should be able to. But more than that, I'm no lawyer and while my experience around issues like this gives me some opinions and expectations, I don't want to put my foot in it by delving into idle speculations.

In the meantime, as well, the promised press release is out. It offers (a little) more information about their intentions, but generally continues the theme of "we didn't do what you are saying we did" that permeated the output from on 2/17. Granted, it is in nicer language and they fixed some of the grammar problems (yes, I get irritated at tweets with grammar or vocabulary mistakes, that's one of the side effects of having a BA in English).

It still, however, misses a crucial point: what do you INTEND to do. They deny filing legal actions, however "informational letters" are typically a prelude to some other sort of action. They do not mention the DMCA requests to Google. It continues a disingenuous attempt to portray them as victims of a disproportionate response to innocent actions. It will do little, if anything, to quell the communities reaction.

What is made clearer is that the Dervaes family views the growing popularity of this movement as a threat to their perceived position of leadership. Too soon, guys, too soon. Yes, the time will come for squabbling and internecine fighting, but that time is not now. We are still in the "a rising tide lifts all boats" stage where supporting the greater cause will build the market. This attempt to gain control may help build market share but controlling a larger portion of a smaller or more slowly growing market is not advantageous in an absolute sense.

Pyhrric victory, anyone? A scorched earth retreat across the burning fields of urban homesteads is not the way to maintain position.

Right now we are still growing, still need to build community and identity. I work in an industry that is at market saturation and so we see crazy legal actions all the time, companies claiming too have invented whole ideas. Why? Because everyone already wants a cell phone. Every one knows what they are. Everyone wants one. So the bickering begins.

But imagine if, in the 1970's Bell Labs had trademarked the phrase "Cell Phone" and variants and then, in the 1980's when the devices started to become popular, chosen to protect that trademark. Things might have turned out differently if we had lacked a common phrase to describe that thing that we hold up to our ear to talk on when we aren't at home. Granted, there are dozens of synonyms (including bizarre new ones like "converged device"...I mean...really?) but the term "cell phone" got us started.

On Facebook, I've contrasted the Dervaes' attempted actions with Charlie Papazian, one of the founders of the American homebrewing movement. His first book came out in 1976 - homebrewing in the US wouldn't be legalized until two years later, by the way. For a couple of decades, he had the only continuously in-print book on the topic. Of his seven published books, the canonical The Complete Joy of Homebrewing
has run to thee editions and nearly a million copies sold. And then there are the six other books he wrote... Papazian is revered as a guru, a founder, an inspiration. I actually don't particularly care for his writing (a little too 1970's "relax and have a homebrew for me...I like a little more microbiology in my beer books) but if I ran into him at a convention (and if I could get through the rings of people looking for his autograph, opinion, photo op, etc.) I'd shake his hand and know I'd touched someone without whom my hobby may not exist.

Yet he, despite having at least as much right to claim ownership of homebrewing as the Dervaes' do of urban homesteading, never made any move to protect that claim. Perhaps it was that 1970's "relax and have a homebrew" attitude. Instead he threw his weight into growing the movement as a whole, founding organizations, writing books, promoting the entire idea. And now, like I said, guru status and a million books out there.

Compare and contrast. And remember, a rising tide lifts all boats. Take care of those around you and they will take care of you.

You, Dervaes' are in the unenviable position of needing to react to a situation that is now well and truly out of your control. You are dealing with a cluster f@ck you did not intend to create. But no one intends to create a cluster f@ck. They just happen. By definition, this is a self destructive situation with no easy, cost free solution. No outcome will wind the clock back a week. No outcome will be to everyone's satisfaction.

Perceptions are reality and you cannot continue to react to the message you intended to send , whatever it was, with your informational letters and DMCA requests. You must react to the message that was perceived by the community at large. Only by doing so can you bring this situation back under control.

So I ask you to make the tough call, show true leadership within this community, show that your intentions have the best interests of the community at heart, regain as much respect as possible within this community. Take the path I outlined, cede these trademarks. Let your actions be ones we can celebrate as a growing community - not ones that are derided and mocked to our shared suffering.

But now with that said, the blog does make the point that we've all got crops to water, goats to feed (I don't, not yet), eggs to collect (ok, I don't actually have eggs to collect either...yet), retaining walls to build (I actually DO have that on my project list) and all the rest.

I appreciate all your kind comments on the original version of this open letter and, as with many of you who have commented, hope that it finds a receptive audience in those who most need to read it.


Anonymous said...

Wow this was well said. I hope they take some of your advice.

MrBrownThumb said...

Fantastic post.

Andrea said...

Aptly put but after their crazy blog posts over the last 24 hours, I doubt they will listen. Which will really be everyone's loss. Thanks for putting our anger into clear thoughts and outlining the issues clearly and directly.

Michael Nolan said...

This is the most beautifully stated commentary on the situation yet. Thank you for your thoughtful insight into an ugly matter.

Colleen Vanderlinden said...

This was an amazing post -- I love that you get to the big picture of this whole issue, and what bothers me most about it all: the possible (probable?) impact this will have on the urban homesteading community. I hope they listen to you.

Cheryl said...

Thanks for being a voice of reason in this debate. I continue to be astonished at their actions and their current, "we're the real victims here" defense. Some of the other phrases are just as ridiculous --at least one has been on bumper stickers since I was a kid.

Steve said...

After all these years of denying interviews and showings of their video because there was a profit motive in it somewhere, and then threaten Amazon over a book with a title using one of "their" term under DMCA.

I have destroyed my copy of their DVD, and will buy nothing more from them. I will help them stay away from that evil Profit motive ( theirs).

The name Dervaes is now a non-entity and will never be mentioned again on my podcasts after several that praised them.

This is a Terrific Post!

Laura said...

Thank you for writing this. You said all sorts of things that I was thinking, but could not compose.

I fear they are going to dig in their heels. This won't be pretty that's for sure.

Kevin said...

Thanks for you post on this, my own post/rant on this wasn't nearly so high minded.

Send lawyers, guns, and money. The Humanure (tm) has hit the fan.

Skaelia said...

Beautifully worded. Thank you! I hope this reaches them.

Just Nick said...

Thanks everyone. I usually have a "don't engage, it only makes them try harder" policy, but this issue hit close enough to home.

Oh, and Kevin, the Warren Zevon paraphrase makes you my personal hero!

Tom said...

Is an "Amen" a sufficient enough reply?

Hyperlocavore said...

Thanks for this really well written approach. I've been trying to say give them some space to turn it around. I'm glad you say the same thing.
I don't think there's anything wrong about trying to develop a clear identity - and they have - and then they soiled it by trying to own something un-ownable and claiming a position they did not hold.

I very much appreciate that you appreciate the deep complex diversity this "movement" represents.

If nothing else this ugliness has meant that a lot of us have made more connections...the silver lining on a clouded couple of days.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written. I hope someone over there reads it.

meg- grow & resist said...

Wonderful- thank you! I'm loving the community their ridiculous actions are actually creating. It is wonderful to see people from so many walks of life come together for something they believe in!

Foodie4Life said...

Beautiful...just beautiful.

Kitty Sharkey said...

Thank you for writing this. Very very well said. I only hope that the Dervaes family sees it.

Maureen said...

Excellent post...thank-you.

Pip said...

Sadly, because this is a blog, and it says the trademark sacred words, it will probably be removed. So much for freedom of speech America!

a Thrifty Mama said...

Thanks for this great post. I used to point to the Dervaes as people that DID it, but now, I'm not going to be able to refer to the wonderful work they've done without drawing up the shame they've brought upon themselves. And as a blogger who sometimes blogs about these topics myself, I really don't want to have to worry about such a stupid trademark! Seriously! Why didn't they just go for the gold and trademark "garden" even. Idiots!

Jessica said...



Anonymous said...

AWESOMELY put! Loved every word of it.

MommaofMany said...

Thank you for expressing SO WELL exactly what I was thinking. I think they must be very surprised at the reaction folks are having to this and have a very little window left to right it. I hope they choose the right road.

Diane said...

Brilliant. Best take yet on the situation. I hope they listen.

Anonymous said...

Way to make use of your great writing skill and unique insight into the matter. This whole thing is appalling.

Brown Thumb Mama said...

Amen. Your comments are so eloquent and more rationally stated than mine! I hope they listen and consider the consequences to the tenuous tribe that is UH.

Kristy said...

Well stated and thought out. One of the best comments on this topic I have read.

From my wannna be urban homestead in Singapore (but in fact, just a patio, with a dead basil plant).

frijolitofarmer said...

Very well put! One quibble, though, and you're not the only one I've seen doing it. I'm seeing repeated references to "the movement you helped spawn," etc., that seem to give the Dervaeses the credit they claim while arguing that they have no right to that claim.

"Mr. Gore, you did NOT invent the know, that Internet you started so many years ago and for which we all thank you very much."

I've been an urban homesteader for 20 years, stepping it up to full-fledged urban farming as my principal occupation in 2008. I've read plenty about homesteading, urban and otherwise, and I was a workshop presenter at last year's Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association's annual convention where Joel Salatin was the keynote speaker. I've been using the term all along, and I had never heard the name "Dervaes" until yesterday. I've never heard of them, never read them, never met them, never even been to California. I resent any insinuation whatsoever that these people are in any least way responsible for my doing what I do. I would still be an urban homesteader had the Dervaeses never existed...and from my perspective, they didn't until yesterday.

Other than that, this was a marvelous post and I applaud you for writing it. I hope they get the message.

Patrick said...

I very much concur with all of the statements. This is amazingly well put - both said intelligently and with genuine concern for the movement. I also agree with Steve, that if the Dervaes do not want to start using common sense about this, then no one, absolutely NO ONE, should spend one penny with them. That way, they can sit at home at night with their (bogus - my opinion) registered name, be absolutely delighted with it, but have no income whatsoever.
There are enough forces out there from big business that want to squelch the sustainability movement and all URBAN HOMESTEADERS (sue me Dervaes - I dare you)should work together. By the way, for those of you who are uncertain, the Dervaes claim to the registered name is useless as it is clearly a "generic" term (again, just my opinion but I'd bet it's legally correct [sounds like someone who might have gone to law school, practiced law and even been a judge]).

Dawn said...

Thank you from a very old urban homesteader. Beautifully and succinctly said.
The Garden Pomona, CA

Judy Gex said...

Excellent commentary on a subject that finds me aghast this morning. Trademarking "urban homesteader" is like trademarking "city bike rider." The Dervaes family will always have my respect for their accomplishments, but they just lost my support for their ill-thought out attempts to co-opt a trademark on a phrase that encompasses so many and so much.

Harpy 101 said...

Thank you. Oh, thank you.

Jim said...

Well...the press release was less than noble.

And the DMCA notice they sent to Google last week won't help their defense at all...

Just sad.

Ellen said...

Thank you for eloquently writing what many of us here have been thinking. It hits raw nerves after Obama approved more GMO crops last week, and our republican dominated legislation is wasting no time to repeal many of our basic human writes. Feels like George Orwell's follow up book. May the Dervaes find themselves humbled and fire the attorney(s) who suggested this really bad move.

Bronwyn said...

Interesting dilemma--

and I think Nick captures it right off the bat, when you say that the Dervaes are likely trying to protect essentially a way of life, a belief system, a code of ethics (my elaboration) from Monsanto and the big guys. I cannot see the Dervaes suing for breach of trademark or patent (and there are big differences) anyone who said what they were doing was urban homesteading --
but I can see the reverse happening, if Monsanto patented the term urban homesteading -- then lawsuits would fly. And you know they would, because Monsanto and others due that -- A LOT! -- and really, aware food consumers/producers are still Monsanto's biggest hurdle -- it would make SO MUCH SENSE for them to capitalize on the peoples' highly honed interest in the Dervaes.

Really, the more I go one, I'm thinking 'Way to Go Dervaes' -- you beat Monsanto to the punch!
(And by trademarking something, it does not automatically imply that you were or are the first on the block to do it -- often it can signify that you recognize the merit behind it!)

We live in a capitalist society, competitive and fierce, that transacts in the language of IPR (Int.Property Rights) -- the Dervaes don't want to be left out of the conversation -- and by doing so, they may open the door for many more people to do so!

It's sad that it has to play out this way, but....

Patty said...

great ! Just my thoughts exactly. We have been homesteading in the city for 2 decades and I think my great grandmother was too !

Ivy said...

Patty - It would be great if the Dervaes family were trademarking only to keep Monsanto and "Big Ag" from using the terms they claim they invented, but that isn't the case.
I live in Los Angeles, and as an active gardener and blogger, have had contact with the family and know several people who have had negative run-ins with them in the past. They don't want ANYONE using these terms, and they very truly believe that THEY DID THIS FIRST, and that anything about urban faming and sustainability belongs to them. Two wonderful people here in LA known as the "Urban Pioneers", who have written books on the subject of urban homesteading, have had their work severely impacted by the D family - they will probably have to change the title of their already published book on its next printing. The Dervaes are NOT doing this to block Monsanto - they are doing this for money and ego. And to be frank, they don't care what anyone else thinks. They are a society unto themselves, and have no interest in any community other than the one that pays homage to them. Ironic, isn't it? Gardeners are by nature giving, sharing, open-source kind of people, to see this behavior from someone who does what we do is SHOCKING, and I think that accounts for much of the confusion and bad feelings. They won't share and don't care - if they did, this never would have happened. I don't think this was done on the advice of lawyers - having heard the stories about them over the years and having had an unpleasant run-in with them myself, I am fairly certain this move was conceived by the family. Now they are wounded because we "misunderstood"? I we understand perfectly. This is just the latest, biggest instance of "acting out" by people who are notorious for their strange behavior.

Chard Lady said...

Thank you for your eloquent comments.

Christina said...

I really appreciate your comments.

Your update reminded me that sometimes a new movement is pulled together when they have something to fight against. Seems the Urban Homestead movement has become stronger and more unified in the last two days.

jess said...

I wonder if they will forfeit their "urban homestead" trademark when they move to their 600 acre farm/commune/eco-village in South America? that doesn't sound very urban. "somewhere safe but isolated" is practically the antithesis of "urban."

this article was quite interesting.

emma rosenthal said...

i think you mean idle speculations, not idol speculations, though that's good too!

emma rosenthal said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Just Nick said...

Emma - you got me, thanks for the correction. Fixed it.

ewerb said...

clearly, this points up a serious gap in IP law that there was not sufficient public hearing or airing in the urban homestead community on their intent to expropriate and enforce such uses. usually such non-exclusive commonly descriptive terms are only trademarked / granted exclusive rights in conjunction with the operator’s proper name or dba. if that were the case, e.g., Dervaes Institute Urban Homesteading (TM), it's likely the patriarch and his “adult children” would not be pining for a do-over.

it would be great if we can use this as way to grow progressive alternatives for conflict resolution in our overly litigious society, let’s make it so.

Kory said...

Well put, quite frankly the whole thing has saddened be and I think done a disservice to the movement as a whole.