Bad Blood On The Home(steading) Front

Is urban homesteading’s reputation of being a crowd-sourced and friendly philosophy for living being capitalized on?

I’ve had homesteading on the brain for the past couple of weeks and not because I’m raising chickens on my azotea (Quick vocab lesson: we live in Spain where azotea is the Andaluz way of saying roofdeck), but because I find things like manscapers, urban chicken sheds and nouveaux communes interesting, relevant, sometimes sexy, counter-culture and quietly revolutionary. Imagine my surprise then, upon discovering that the reputation urban homesteading has enjoyed over the past two decades, of being a crowd-sourced and friendly philosophy for living, is being capitalized, idealistically and literally.

No, all’s not right on the homestead and here’s how it affects the rest of us.

The Nitty Grits

In February of this year, the Dervaes Institute – the nonprofit arm of the family by the same moniker filed for and won the right to exclusively own the rights to the term Urban Homesteading and all of its incarnations under U.S. Trademark law. Armed with their new paperwork, they sent out a series of cease and desist letters to publishers, bloggers, a farmer’s market in Colorado, KCRW-FM, the Santa Monica Public Library, and several web pages. They followed up by asking Facebook to remove all pages and profiles that employed the words “Urban” and “Homesteading” in quick succession without using a big ® and those nasty capital letters I alluded to before.

Many feathers were ruffled, including those of Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne, authors of The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City, and their publisher Process Media. Both parties are now being represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and have filed a petition with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office to have the trademarks revoked.

The Dervaes Institute also hurled a rotten egg (that malodorous petition) to James Bertini of Denver Urban Homesteading who subsequently had his Facebook page, along with its 2,000 followers, permanently sheered from the social network. He, too, has filed a petition with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office.

Upon hearing about all the weeding going on, blogger April Alexander started her own Facebook Page, this one called Take Back Urban Homesteading(s), or TBUH. “I saw that this family was trying to own the words that define the urban homesteading movement by trademarking them,” she explained. “And I couldn’t sit idly by and let it happen.”

It has since become a vibrant community with over 7,500 members sharing photos, links, advice – basically doing what homesteaders do. To date, they’re about 2,000 likes shy of the Dervaes’ own Facebook presence.

Guarding the Homestead

The Dervaes’ claim to the phrase stems from their high-profile homesteading efforts, something they’ve been at in Pasadena, CA since the early 1980s. That’s a long time, and they’ve enjoyed their lot in the sun. They run several websites and blogs, were the subject of an award-winning film. Hot damn, they’ve even been on Oprah.

However, April Alexander of TBUH argues that Mother Earth News has been publishing articles on urban homesteading since the 1970’s. Moreover, the Dervaes Institute claims that Jules Dervaes is the founder of the urban homestead movement, which to April and her cohorts is as authentic as a ChemLawn.

“My family has been urban homesteading for generations.  My dad is the grandson of German immigrant farmers and his mother always had a large vegetable garden in the backyard of her Sacramento, California home, so I knew firsthand that the Dervaes family weren’t the creators of urban homesteading.”

Rebecca Jeschke, Media Relations Director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says that it’s not just a matter of which came first, the chicken or the egg, or in this case the blog or the term. It’s the principle behind it all, plus a few legal irregularities that stick out like wild dandelions.

“The trademark the Dervaes family received was for a narrow purpose. Educational services.” But even that’s not enough to hold water, they claim. The term has become too much a part of popular vernacular to be appropriated by any one claimant, and there are bigger considerations to take into account.

“The issue is that this kind of trademark abuse makes free speech on the internet really difficult. A big part of urban homesteading is sharing information and being in communities that discuss it. This abuse of intellectual property law [threatens to] shut down a vibrant discussion online.”

What’s on the horizon?

At the risk of alienating themselves completely from the community that germinated them, the Dervaes’ family has planted its heels steadfastly in the mud. They want that trademark, and for now, they have it.

On team TBUH, in the meantime, it looks like the damage done to the family’s reputation – generous, neo-hippy and inclusive – is irreparable.

Nevertheless, April adds, “The urban homesteading community is very giving and I really believe that if they would be willing to mend fences and be more neighborly” all could be forgiven.

Two emails and phone calls seeking comment from the Dervaes Institute have gone unreturned.

UPDATE: Per the US Trademarks Office, the Dervaes Institute has principal registration on the term Urban Homestead, whereas Urban Homesteading is on the supplemental register. As such the latter does not afford them exclusive use. Crave more details on the nuances of trademark law? Have fun!

Images: Roger H. Goun and ♥ Jaye




K. Emily Bond

K. Emily Bond is the Shelter Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in southern Spain, reporting on trends in art, design, sustainable living and lifestyle.