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The Battle Over “Urban Homesteading” Trademark

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Black Prince Tomatoes by David Owen on Flickr

Image by David Owen on Flickr

Being less wasteful and more self-sufficient in urban areas has gained traction as people increasingly welcome hens and plant more vegetables in their city spaces — but the Dervaes Institute’s trademark of the phrase “urban homesteading,” commonly used to describe this lifestyle, hasn’t engendered much community spirit.

In fact, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has taken up the case of Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen, authors of The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City, and their publisher Process Media, who have received warning letters from the Institute to cease and desist use of the term. According to Publishers Weekly, the trademark holders contacted “16 organizations, publishers, and other businesses” regarding their use of “urban homestead” or “urban homesteading,” including “cease-and-desist letters to radio shows, to a public library that was holding a free event on the subject of living sustainably in a city,” as well as to Coyne, Knutzen, and their publisher.

At the heart of the dispute is the Institute’s complaint to Facebook regarding Coyne and Knutzen’s page promoting their book, which led to Facebook’s taking down of the page. When the publisher complained, Facebook told them it was a matter to be decided between the Institute and the authors — and the page remained down.

The EFF maintains that although “the Institute managed to register the term as a trademark (in connection with ‘educational services’ such as blogging)[,] . . . the term ‘urban homesteading’ is commonly understood to refer to a popular movement and related set of practices.” According to the EFF, Coyne and Knutzen “and anyone else — are free to use it in that descriptive sense, and that is exactly what they did.”

The EFF also challenges the granting of the trademark in the first place:

Time was, the registration of this kind of mark might have had limited impact, because sensible mark-owners would think twice before bringing legal action and, short of such action, most legal users could ignore any improper threats. In the Internet context, however, individuals and organizations rely on service providers to help them communicate with the world (YouTube, Facebook, eBay, Blogger, etc.). A trademark complaint directed to one of those providers can mean a fast and easy takedown given that those service providers usually don’t have the resources and/or the inclination to investigate trademark infringement claims. Moreover, because there is no counter-notice procedure, the targets of an improper takedown have no easy way to get their content back up.

In response to the Institute’s claim over “urban homesteading,” many people taking part in this movement have joined in the fight against the trademarking of the term. So far there has been an Urban Homesteader’s Day of Action and a YouTube campaign in support of Coyne and Knutzen’s efforts.

What do you think of this dispute?

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March 16th, 2011 at 9:49 am