Well it is a mighty fine mess you have created. Yes, Dervaes family, urbanhomestead.org, 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 Laws are making it easier for us to practice what we believe in (I’m talking about how my town repealed a ban on backyard poultry last year…but I’m sure there are others).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.
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 urbanhomestead.org 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 urbanhomestead.org 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.