Permaculture Institute outlines case for trademarking

Toby Hemenway hemenway at
Sun Sep 9 13:47:54 EDT 2001

Thanks, Russ, for pointing us to the trademark information at the PIL
website. I can sympathize a little with the Mollison's case for
trademarking, as there may be a possibility of someone "stealing" the word
permaculture, and obviously we'd all like to prevent that (although it's
filtered back to me that the Mollisons feel that it's people like Scott
Pittman and myself who want to "steal" the word, which is ludicrous).

But there's a better solution than trademarking. The main argument for
trademarking is that "permaculture" and related phrases were once assumed to
be protected from use by non-certificate holders, but since this turned out
to be untrue, we need to have other forms of protection. Yet I don't think
there have been abuses significant enough to warrant the trademark move. The
current use of the the words and phrases doesn't seem irresponsible. To me,
the cure--control of the term by a tiny group (actually by the Mollisons,
regardless of the presence of the Institute board)--is far worse than the

So here's an alternative, though it may be too late for this. My
understanding is that inventors of devices and processes can have their
works placed in the public domain if they choose. I suggest that this be
done for the words permaculture, PDC, and permaculture design. The
possibility for unauthorized use then will be no worse than it is now, plus
no one will be able to "steal" the words by trademarking, and the acrimony
of this debate will evaporate. Bill would still hold the copyright for his
books and other works, while his ideas, his synthesis of others' ideas, and
the enhancements made by others could proliferate without restriction. This
solution--one that preserves the well-functioning, self-policing
organization that we have now--would be far more in keeping with the ethics
of permaculture than ownership of the term by what amounts to two people.

I find the Institute's arguments that they are "protecting" the terms for
graduates to be disingenuous at best, and simply untrue at worst. Witness
the egg logo. It is now trademarked, and it is not being "protected" for
anyone: it it simply the exclusive property of Bill. I don't deny that Bill
has the right to withdraw it from from widespread use, but that was a
self-destructive move that deprived the world-wide permaculture movement of
a useful tool. The logo is a universally recognized symbol, used extremely
effectively by many teachers and designers to promote permaculture until it
was trademarked. Now it is simply unavailable, except for use by the
(nonexistent) Permaculture Academy.

There is good evidence that the trademarking of "permaculture design course"
will result in similar unnecessary and damaging restrictions. During my
copyright difficulties, the Mollisons acknowledged that I am a PDC graduate,
yet they attempted to prevent me from writing about permaculture's core
concepts, and refused to grant me permission to do so when I asked (even
though I was not legally bound to do so). This says to me that they are not
"protecting" the terms for the use of graduates; they are restricting their
use to those whom they personally find acceptable. The fact that some
extremely effective, well-established teachers have been refused
authorization to teach by the Mollisons confirms this.

I have the utmost respect for Bill's tremendous contribution to humanity,
and it causes me a lot of pain to be forced into this stance. But my own
experience, and what I hear from many others, tells me that the effort to
trademark terms and register teachers is not being done out of high motives.
While I respect the right of authors to control their works, any attempt to
control or "own" the ideas in those works is odious to me. I still oppose
the trademarking efforts, and will not support teacher registration until
the group making those selections is made more representative, free from
personal interest, and less biased.

For a look at my new book on ecological gardening,
Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, visit

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