Almost Fearless

Can a Movement Be Trademarked?



When I had my first child, I started reading about unschooling. My baby was only months-old but I was devouring everything I could find about parenting methods, homeschooling and travel. I knew I wanted to keep traveling, so I was looking for information on how all of that would work. There wasn’t a single source, but unschooling seemed to fit best. That’s when I met Lainie Liberti. She started traveling with her son Miro in 2011.

Since then, Lainie has built a huge worldschooling community on Facebook and while I haven’t posted much, I have been a member. Worldschooling is a broad term to describe traveling families who use their travels as education for their kids. There’s also roadschooling, edventures, unschooling, homeschooling and life-learning. There’s a lot of groups, so it was strange when I logged into Facebook to see Lainie’s group now had a TM next to the name.

Trademarked? It took me by surprise because that word pre-dates Lainie’s travels. I was there. Just one quick example from March 2010, here is one family talking about worldschooling their daughter. Lainie and Milo started traveling in 2011. It’s literally impossible that she’s the source.

I’m not an IP lawyer, so maybe she has a claim to this name. I’ve heard rumors that Eli Gerzon originally created the FB group and lays claim to the word and has somehow “passed the trademark” to Lainie. The earliest source I can find for Eli is from January of 2008.

“Worldschooling” — This is a new term coined by Eli Gerzon that is essentially a more descriptive and positive version of unschooling that can apply to anyone even those beyond school age. Gerzon defines it by saying, “It’s when the whole world is your school, instead of school being your whole world.” Eli Gerzon has “unschooled through college” mainly by learning from his international travels but the term does not require you to travel the world, just as unschooling doesn’t forbid making use of school resources. Instead, it’s when one actively experiences and learns from the world around one: the home, family, friends, strangers of all backgrounds, libraries, parks, sports, forests, schools, towns, and of course the world and the world wide web. It also emphasizes that there is always more to learn from this wonderful, complex world regardless of whether one has a high school degree, is a doctor, or is solely self-educated.”

I remember reading that page, back in my research phase of unschooling and worldschooling and I never gave it a second thought. I think for most traveling families the name Eli Gerzon doesn’t ring a bell. However, that definition of worldschooling, written by Eli Gerzon on EliGerzon.com could be the original source. Did Eli coin the phrase? It’s hard to know but there are parked domains at worldschooling.com (registered in 2000), world-school.com (registered 1998) and others (although several have changed hands so it’s hard to know the original registration).

So what does this mean for those of us casually using the word? Will they go after the 26,450 photos on Instagram tagged #worldschool or the 26,827 tagged #worldschooling or just the 2,192 tagged #worldschoolers?

On Facebook, Lainie said, “We’ve noticed a lot of opportunists tapping into our community for commercial purposes, it was a way for us protect our community from others creating a commercial organization that exploits our community.”

That’s an interesting word, “opportunists.” Is worldschooling her brand or is it an organic movement? I’m totally okay with her making money from paid events and I believe she should benefit from her labor organizing the community. However, families are not traveling because of Lainie, they are traveling because of the internet. (See also: Tim Ferriss for good timing with the 4 Hour Workweek but he didn’t invent the tech advances that makes digital nomadism possible).

We’ve seen this before

If you were a member of Pantsuit Nation last year, you might remember when the group reached over 2 million members and the person who founded it got a book deal using the private messages of women on the group. The backlash was quick and severe. Six months later the book has not come out and the public FB page for Pantsuit Nation only has 100,000 followers. It killed the movement.

It concerns me that Lainie Liberti wants to control who uses the phrase that describes my family. It is disheartening that the dozens of long running groups could be at legal jeopardy for using a phrase that was shared freely for over a decade. It’s truly upsetting that anyone who has complained has been banned from her group. (Waiting for my ban in 3, 2, 1…)

The increase of traveling families over the seven years I’ve had kids has been dramatic. We’re getting written up as The rise of traveling families and world-schooling in The Guardian and there are multiple summits about the topic (I’m speaking at one in September, called the Family Adventure Summit and another in January called Worldschooling Central). I wouldn’t say there’s any real money in teaching families how to travel on the cheap, homeschooling as they go and often juggling side-hustle work and parenting. However, the movement is changing, maturing and has reached what I’d now call it’s “awkward teenage years.” There are 30,000 members in the World Schoolers (TM) group, a sign of just how many families now find this appealing (I remember the days when there were two dozen of us huddled together in private chats, the odd-balls in any travel forum).

The goal is to stop us from using the name

Ultimately we’re at a cross-roads. Lainie’s group was explicit in their intent to stop others from using the worldschool term: “Rest assured there is no evil intent in using our trademark now, we simply need a way to differentiate and protect ourselves from others using similar names, which has been confusing members as they assume those groups are run by us.” (Emphasis added.)

If they are successful, we may not have many options. However, the movement only exists because of the families that live it. We’re here, it’s ours and there is room for all of us. They say “our decision-making process is based on what we feel is best for not only this group, but for the worldschooling movement as a whole.” Here’s what’s best for the movement: keep it as open and free as possible.

UPDATE 6/23/17: My access to the Worldschoolers FB group has been restored and I’m currently a member. I’ve posted 10 questions (below in the comments) and received a partial response from Jen Silver but I’ve also forwarded those questions to Lainie Liberti. I haven’t had a response yet, but I’ll post when I do. I’ve also found a trademark lawyer to write a follow up post to discuss trademark law and the broad strokes around this specific case. It’s not legal advice but I think it will bring some much needed clarity to the community. The ideal situation in my mind is if we can find a way to peacefully co-exist together, both as individuals and businesses. Expect a new post next week.

mm

Christine Gilbert

Christine Gilbert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Almost Fearless. She's a long time traveler, expat and adventurer who is finding her way home to Colorado after nine years on the road. She's one of National Geographic's Travelers of the Year (2014) and author of the book MOTHER TONGUE (2016, Penguin Random House). She has three children: Cole, Stella + Tallulah.

35 comments

  • I completely agree. I felt so sad when the group vibe changed. I have never been a group or clique kind of person. In school I was always the a handful of really good friends but never felt the need to have the group dynamic of my own.

    This sort of felt like creating an in group and out group. I don’t need protecting from those that want to make money off the name. I am not particularly phased who runs or admins the group. As long as it remained a gathering of people with a mutual love and outlook on education and travel.

    I have not said anything as I do enjoy the resource and saw others getting the boot bug I have contributed on posts really since.

    Owning a movement is impossible. Ride the hype or wave. Position yourself as a early adoptor but why try and control something so natural. People will exploit, pollute and ride the lownybwagon of a movement. But doesn’t mean a group can t keep its values and integrity.

    Didn’t realise I felt so strongly about this!

  • I was surprised too when I saw the TM on the Worldschoolers group — I’ve belonged since it only had a few dozen members, and we’ve called ourselves the ‘Worldschool Family’ for years (we’ve been traveling and worldschooling with our seven kids for at least 10 years, before there were facebook groups, hashtags and blogs about it). Does that mean I need to trademark our name if I want to keep using it now? 🙂 Seems odd to me…

    • Yes I thought of you guys… this happened with Urban Homesteading as a term… rocked a whole niche of bloggers. Not sure what will happen but I thought an open airing could help.

  • I 100% agree and addressed these concerns and others to Lainie and the admins and was basically shut down. They closed down all communication on the FB page around the topic and said it blew over and most people didn’t mind but in reality they forbade discussion on the topic. Obviously we’ve been worldschooling longer than most (20 years with ten of that full time travel) our daughter owns the #1 google spot for the term. I’m really offended by their move. I know Lainie personally as well as some of her admins and right followers. I think they’ve taken the wrong path here and I’m vocal about it.

  • I am glad ypu are writing about this. I was part of the worldschool group since its inception. I am disgusted by how Laine and her group of admins keep shutting down conversations they do not approve of and how they talk down to people whose opinions they don’t agree with and in the end how they kick any opposing members out. More than anything I am saddened with a group, which name a focus on education, is so very pro anti vaccination and anti science. Any discussions that try to talk real science (not pseudo science and essential oils) and vaccinations are shut down whereas fear mongering and anti scinece and anti vaccine discussions are applauded and left up and even promote byLaine and her group. It is irresponsible at best but could lead to illnes ad death at worst. I left the group. I just wish the was a another group of serious worldschoolers, a group of people who travels the world with compassion and others safety in mind, rather than their own woo, leaving disease and bullshit in their wake.

  • I too have been a member a long time. About 5 months ago I made a comment suggesting an expat fb page to someone looking for one. Not for my personal gain but to help them. My comment was deleting and it was stating I was endorsing another group. I felt that was major sensoring. Now the tm thing. They we’re not clear at all if they were planning on using the information and pictures I shared with the group for what ever they plan on doing now. I feel like going through years of info, pics and deleting it all. I am not happy at all how this group has changed because they were not open at all. So censored that it is making long term members afraid to comment or say how they really feel about it. Giving people the boot because they are not agreeing with the change is not an open change.

    • Same thing happened to me. Someone ASKED for recommendations for something, so I took time out of my day to look up the sources I’d used in the past and share them in the group, but the admins deleted my post because they were trying to stop self-promo.

      The reality is that I didn’t know any of the people who’s sites/groups I linked to, and none of them were mine – the share was purely to help a member out.

      I’m in a TON of other FB groups and none of them censor their members the way the admins of the Worldschoolers group do.

    • The banning is not surprising. As I noted in my (too long?) comment on your thread, the group seems to be shifting into a semi-reactionary mode of pushing back against anyone or anything that says or thinks differently to how they do.

      Please note that this little rant is coming from someone whose educational philosophy is aligned with yours and has been evolving since my parents tried out various approaches to alternative education with me back in the 70s and 80s. I think the world is a great school- and one where we realize people generally don’t think the same as we do, nor should they.

      I think the turning point for me with the Worldschooling group was that very popular post by that mother of 7 or 8 kids from Vancouver Island (my homeland– many hippies, lotsa homeschooling, lotsa anti vax, all legally supported by the Canadian and provincial governments) whining about how she needed to leave because people where she lived didn’t think exactly as she did and she wanted to take the kids somewhere where their approach was more normal, where they could do whatever they wanted without interference. Well, here in Vietnam, where there’s a vaccine shortage, people are desperate to vaccinate their kids because they DIE. And with classrooms crowded to capacity, families are desperate to make sure their kids get an education because competition is fierce and the stakes are real and high. Only about 35% get through high school, I think, mainly due to lack of money. Formal education is valued and desired. I know where she’s coming from (literally and figuratively) and I’m annoyed that she (and so many people like her) see the world as a playground where they can express themselves freely without actually knowing anything about their own privileged position or how the rest of the world really struggles. The places that might afford them the freedoms they crave are the same countries that do not support their own citizens or ensure their health and well being.

      End rant.

      • It is a lovely, thoughtful rant!

        “I’m annoyed that she (and so many people like her) see the world as a playground where they can express themselves freely without actually knowing anything about their own privileged position or how the rest of the world really struggles.”

        The worst aspect of this is in my opinion how healthy, well off families discuss openly and without shame how to fool countries they visit and circumvent the local vaccination rules. They proudly, backed by the WorldschoolersTM group admins, spread propaganda and falsehoods and discuss how to avoid getting proper vaccinations because they personally do not ‘believe’ in them. Like you wrote, children are dying with easily preventable diseases in many countries, and these worldschoolers happily travel unvaccinated, potentially spreading deadly diseases, with no regards what so ever for the children in the countries they visit. Talk about privilege. I no longer participate in the WorldschoolersTM group because of their antivaccination stance. Frankly, it disgusts me.

        If anyone has another worldschooler group to recommend, one where members are actually interested in the “schooling” part (ie education with real science, not woo) I will be happy to join!

        • At Christine’s casual suggestion in her FB thread, I started one: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1296443870424161/

          I’m not really sure what to do with it, as I’m not really involved in the other one, aside from being a group member. I think I’ll just put it out there as an optional place for people to go and have a sane, reasonable chat about how they’re doing things, why, and to ask questions and generally just find out about options. I’m a teacher and have lived and taught all over the world for a few decades now and find the naivete and narrow mindedness of some of the trademarked worldschoolers exhausting and frustrating.

          Feel free to add yourself to the group, if not already in it.

        • Yes, Johana, I’ve noticed the same and it disgusts me.

          These people who are lucky enough to be born in countries where there is good healthcare available have the nerve to try to circumvent rules that other countries have put in place regarding vaccinations in order to protect their citizens, who generally, as a whole, don’t have nearly the resources at their disposal to fight an outbreak of disease as these vaccine-avoiding folks in the group do. As you say, people DIE over this nonsense. 🙁

          It’s awful to see the selfishness being exhibited, and worse, supported by the admins.

  • Slightly off topic but this reminds me of when Ugg Australia (ironically an American brand) trademarked the name ugg, which has been used to describe a particular type of shoe made in Australia since forever. They then sued all the little Australian ugg boot manufacturers for using their name, successfully pissing off an entire continent.

    Hopefully you guys have less trouble than Oz did.

  • When this happened, I did the same research you did and came to the same conclusions. And then, it was time to move on. What the group does or doesn’t do doesn’t affect my life in the least. Nice summary of your findings though.

  • Hi Christine, I’m a Worldschoolers admin chiming in.

    Lainie is off-grid on a retreat this week and will be happy to discuss with you more on return. In the meantime I wanted to make sure you didn’t feel ignored. I am so sad to hear there are misunderstandings about the trademark. Lainie is NOT in any way telling people to not use the terms worldschoolers, worldschooling or worldschool to identify themselves. Nor are we trying to “trademark a movement”. On the contrary, we would LOVE a world where millions had found the joy of worldschooling, and identified as worldschoolers!

    Worldschooling is based on people being free to design their best paths! The trademark ONLY impacts those posing as us for commerce, or otherwise confusing people as to whether they represent us. It has ZERO impact on 99.9% of people. We were instructed professionally to exercise our trademark (which exists de facto whether we like it or not) for the first time, because it recently started happening that some people were forming for-profit businesses, grabbing our content, making Facebook pages using Lainie’s business name, approaching people to video them in order to benefit themselves financially. It was confusing to many people. (Hint: those same people have a financial interest in keeping these rumors going too… )

    I think, as you said, you are not active on the Worldschoolers facebook group much anymore since you are already an accomplished worldschooling veteran, so maybe you haven’t seen that these fears were already addressed as foundless weeks ago? encouraged people to write us and also put up a very long informative explanation which I would be happy to send you. Again, we WANT people to use the terms. We do all we do TO spread the movement, not divide or restrict. etc. No desire or attempt to “rule” or “control” members aside from a few basic group rules, (which are in line with many groups our size – don’t spam, don’t be mean or stir drama, etc.).

    I dont claim we are perfect! But WE are not the ones trying to divide or profit. We are all just doing our best to proceed fairly as other people act in unscrupulous ways. Lainie and all of us admins are just moms volunteering thousands of hours because we believe in this movement. I just wish you had reached out to Lainie, myself, or any admin first to get clarification because your fears could have easily been allayed. We would be happy to discuss any concerns in depth, as said from the start.

    You are a valued member of the broader worldschooling and family travel communities. You and Drew help people on their worldschooling path. I have a lot of admiration for that. I have benefited from your expertise myself, and am happy others benefit from what you have to offer too. I just wish you’d simply read the info we have already put up, or contacted Lainie or any of the admins for the facts before publishing inaccuracies. Anyway, hope this helps clear up your questions and if not please reach out to me.

    • Okay I have some questions and I know Jennifer Miller and Rachel Denning have questions too.

      1. Why do you ban everyone who brings this up – including me – if you’re open to talking about it?

      2. What sites specifically are you planning on shutting down? (links plz)

      3. Does Lainie claim original source on this?

      4. What worldschooling websites will you never take action on (that have that term in the name)?

      5. Will you return access to everyone you blocked for asking about this?

      6. Can we get a legal definition from Lainie’s legal team about why they think trademarking the term won’t impact the broader use of the term. Does this mean that Lainie will choose not to pursue it or is there some special legal framework that grants trademark only in cases of copyright infringement as you are suggesting.

      7. Is Lainie planning to take down any retreats with kids / teenagers for worldschooling that compete with her programs?

      8. Are you willing to have an independent advisory committee to oversee these decisions?

      9. Will there be transparency on who you legally pursue?

      10. Is there a way that people can appeal the decision of your little group if you come after them?

      (Also can you please number your responses so we can make sure we’ve covered everything).

    • “The trademark ONLY impacts those posing as us for commerce, or otherwise confusing people as to whether they represent us”

      I have to laugh. Does the group really think people are so naive and stupid to believe this?

      You are worried about “commerce” – i.e. making money

      And “confusing people as to whether they represent us” is subjective. Who decides what’s too confusing? You? Lainie? Some kangaroo court?

      Gimme a break. This is about making money and eliminating the competition.

  • (Didn’t want to leave these questions hanging, Christine. Here is the note the Worldschoolers ™ Admin Team put out recently.)

    From the Worldschoolers ™ Admin Team: Lainie is on a retreat with limited internet and will be fully available to help next week. In the meantime we wanted to briefly provide some reassurance and clarifications:

    1) There are a lot of inaccurate rumors and posts being promoted this week. We are here and 100% available if you desire accurate info. In brief, you can feel confident the trademark does not stop you or anyone from using the word in conversation or writing to identify as worldschoolers personally, to talk about worldschooling, etc.. This trademark has zero impact on 99.9% of people. The other .1% who would like to use it for business use are invited to contact us and we are confident that in nearly all cases, a quick and easy solution can be achieved.

    2) Based on a legal definition, the group grown by Lainie has had the trademark whether we wanted it or not. We exercised the ™ we have had for years, with sorrow at the necessity (and only after multiple friendly messages weren’t helping), because some individuals recently behaved (intentionally or not) in illegal ways to benefit their own for-profit business. The trademark has already effectively curtailed some of the behavior, and helps prevent similar situations from reoccurring. We do not wish to mud-sling or publicly shame anyone for mistakes.

    3) The plan is to exercise the trademark as minimally as possible while retaining the ability to prevent people from confusing the public on whether we are the ones running their events, creating their products, etc. We are not motivated by $ or ego or any attempt to control the movement. We WANT the movement to spread well beyond our efforts. People should feel free to gravitate toward any and all resources that assist them on their worldschooling journey! 🙂

    4) We are handling this subject in private messages as opposed to on our group wall because these are complex legal issues, and require thoughtful and counseled response, which can not happen real-time in a facebook thread. We have nothing to hide and everything to gain by sharing info with you. We just need to do it in ways that give time to ensure we are getting you accurate info.

    5) A handful of people were removed from the group as they were not abiding by the group guidelines and admin requests, not because they had questions about the trademark. Most of those were invited back a month ago. Anyone who feels they were removed in error and/or would like to be reconsidered as a member should message an admin. The rumor that we are “banning anyone who asks about the trademark” is just that – a rumor.

    We want to help you! This issue is really not as exciting or dramatic as it is being made out. Lainie will be fully available upon return from her retreat next week. We don’t want to put words in her mouth (and as mentioned above these re legal issues that require thoughtful response) so we won’t be engaging in public chats on the matter in the meantime. We ask people remain respectful and patient and not promote inaccurate info. Please send any questions to to a Worldschoolers ™ admin and we will get back to you asap . And THANK YOU to all of you who understand and have sent messages of support. <3

    • “The rumor that we are “banning anyone who asks about the trademark” is just that – a rumor.”

      You literally banned me 3 hours after this post was written. On my FB wall, there are comments of people who were banned for commenting on this post (on other people’s walls).

      The part I have a hard time with is if you’re going to lie, right here, in front of me, when I’m ONE of the people you banned, then how honest are you?

  • Sounds to me like this would never hold up In a court of law. Let’s trademark coffee, banana, earth, nature, holiday etc. Seriously. There are so many worlschoolers out there (including us) who are not fazed out by someone or some group trying to lay claim to world schooling like they own it.
    Worldschooling is about freedom and showing our kids how to get along in this world. We teach them to share, to resolve conflict, and to live in harmony and not to be judgemental.
    However it’s a pretty bad example to these worldschooling kids when this grouo is in open conflict and trying to control and own two words that anyone should have the right to use.
    It’s a disgrace.
    The world should be big enough for all of us and not revolve around money and possessing the rights to something like world schooling.
    Sounds like bullies in the schoolyard to me and a lot of other world schooling parents I know.
    Maybe the trademark group should quit their possessiveness and be an example to the generation we are raising?

  • I completely agree with you. They are bullying their members, bullying the worldschooling community, and acting horribly.

    It’s about greed and profit – there is no other rational reason for their behavior. Anyone who thinks they won’t cause a world of hurt for any other traveling families using the term “worldschooling” is naive.

    I fear it’s only a matter of time before they start complaining to Facebook and other social media sites about trademark infringement to get their competitors shut down… complaining to Google to get their competitors removed from search results…

    The same was done with urban homesteading?? once upon a time (the so-called holders of the trademark eventually lost their case… but not after causing a world of unfair, needless hurt to their competitors)

  • If your name is in the worldschooling group and matches those of anyone commenting here, be careful… you may get the boot!

  • I’m kinda prominient in the whole worldschooling thing too, although I never use the word to describe us, as you know, I stick with “homeschooling” ( no TM on that??). But, I have Google #1s for both “worldschooling” and “worldschoolers”. I also have a post where I describe the above origins as you do, Christine, it’s years old. I think Lainie has stuffed up and there will be backlash. Got nothing against her, but this wasn’t a smart move. I’m not in the group, never have been, not my scene, not interested. I was fairly miffed when one of the admins for that group came into my group purely to self promote, I didn’t know she was an admin, somebody ( we both know) tipped me off, it was blatant advertising. I don’t identify as a worldschooler particulary, I try to avoid any labels. I’ll just sit back and watch this whole pantomime unfold with a nice glass of Merlot. Cheers!

  • This is such an interesting topic and I am glad you have brought light to the fact that this isn’t actually new, it has just been open for everyone. Where as bow people are teying to “claim” it. Very interesting.

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