An Open Letter To The Dervaes

By Nick Strauss (Northwest Edible’s Homebrew Husband)
Originally posted at The Noodlebook

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 going 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 Laws are making it easier for us to practice what we believe in (I’m talking about how my town repealed a ban on backyard poultry last year…but I’m sure there are others).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!

Or

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.

Comments

  1. Beat me to the punch! I was just logging into blogger to write my own open letter and I find yours at the top of my dashboard reading list. LOL

  2. awesome, well said

  3. pride goeth before the fall….

  4. The best most cogent commentary on this fiasco that I have read! Thank you!

  5. Tasha Bird says:

    Awesome! Thank you. This is absurd and they should dissolve this attempt to trademark a common term, a MOVEMENT! Lame-O!

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

    Send lawyers, guns, and money. The Humanure ™ has hit the fan.

  7. Thank you, Nick, for stating my thoughts without me having to resort to unseemly swearing (because I wanted to, they make me so mad).

    Just to repeat what you said; they should stand up and in clear simple words admit that you erred, say “we never intended to deny the broader use of these words.”…, say “and so we waive our claim to these trademarks.”, …and then shut the hell up.

  8. you totally need to trademark the word 'slowish'. :)

  9. Thank you for your post! I'm so disappointed by their actions. I don't think they'll ever be able to recover.

  10. 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….

  11. Wow Nick, well said, and may I begin to say BOTH you and your wife write better than I, drat and I used to write for a living.

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I haven't kept track of the Dervaes over the last year or so since their seed store got up and running. I felt bad for them making what I believed to be a poor decision. How they could make money in that industry I had NO idea. I get that they need to make money, but less shameless promotion would have been nice.

    Now they're trademarking Urban Homestead… interesting. I agree it was likely to stop big aggrobusiness from doing it first, but it does sound bad doesn't it. And it's not like they can come out and say they're only going to sue Monsanto, not you or me, that would make their case moot if it came to that.

    Thanks for the very-well-written update. Though that reminds me, if I ever upgrade from my home made soil block maker, I've got to buy a commercial one from them. That's the least I can do.

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