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Lesley Lammers headshot

Trademark Controversy Spurs Outrage, Emboldens Urban Homesteaders

By Lesley Lammers

In the past, the Dervaes family of the Dervaes Institute has been in the national media spotlight, often portrayed as one of the leaders of the urban homesteading movement.  Referring to their project as the Path to Freedom, the Dervaes are known for turning their one-tenth of an acre property in Pasadena, CA into multiple sustainability initiatives that include growing fruits and vegetables, animal husbandry, water reclamation, solar installations, and beekeeping.  However, recent controversy has brought them under scrutiny for trademarking words that describe a lifestyle which has come to be associated with community-building and the open sharing of knowledge – urban homesteading.

In October 2010, the Dervaes received trademark approval for the terms urban homestead and urban homesteading from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO).  They had filed for these trademarks in 2008, but were originally denied approval because the terms were deemed to not be sufficiently unique.  Their website explains that they chose to trademark the terms for purposes of protecting what they see as their intellectual property from being used for commercial profit.

This year, the Dervaes sent notification letters to 16 website owners, organizations, publishers and other businesses currently utilizing these phrases, to inform them of the registered trademark, show how they are to properly use the trademark symbol along with the terms, and explain that they are required to credit the Dervaes, should they to continue to use the terms.  They separately sent Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices to Google, Facebook, and other sites, causing groups like Denver Urban Homesteading and the Institute of Urban Homesteading to find that their Facebook pages had been disabled on grounds that they were in violation of copyright law.

Some within the online urban homesteading community interpret the Dervaes’ actions as being self-serving, giving themselves credit where credit is not deserved.  A central argument being that urban homesteading is a general term that has been used since the 1970s to describe a larger social movement, rather than specifically depicting the Dervaes’ own particular products or services.  This Mother Earth News article dating back to 1980 makes reference to the term as well as the Integral Urban House, an urban homesteading project about which the Sierra Club published a book in 1979.

Many urban homesteaders have conveyed that the Dervaes have lost credibility among their peers because the movement is about contributing to the common good and teaching your fellow neighbor how to live more sustainably and self-sufficiently. As one blogger, Crunchy Chicken, opines, “This sure doesn't sound like a path to freedom to me but rather a branding of a lifestyle that doesn't belong to them. It's like trademarking ‘farming.’”

Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen, authors of the 2008 book The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City (published three months before the Dervaes filed for the trademarks), were among the recipients of a notification letter from the Dervaes.  Corynne McSherry, Intellectual Property Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), is representing the authors and responded to the Dervaes Institute with a letter warning that they should back down from the trademark complaint and that EFF reserves the right to take legal action should it be necessary.  McSherry’s letter pronounced, “The Dervaes Institute's assertions are plainly meritless and have caused significant harm to my clients as well as other urban homesteaders” and stressed that urban homesteading refers to “a way of life that is common to many and owned by none.”

Tony Lyons, Publisher at Skyhorse, was another target of the Dervaes because of Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living, a book to be published in April. Lyons told Publishers Weekly, “All trademarks are not created equal. Urban Homesteading is clearly a generic, ‘merely descriptive’ phrase that has been used in the United States for decades. It is not a unique or especially creative combination of words. As a result, any trademark protection granted for the phrase Urban Homestead or Urban Homesteading would be very weak.” Lyons intends to continue publishing with the original title.

As seen by the example of these publishers and authors holding their ground, the Dervaes’ actions appear only to have made the urban homesteading movement stronger and more cohesive.  The Facebook group Take Back Urban Home-Steading(s) sprang up only a few weeks ago in reaction to the trademarks and has over 5,700 members.  They organized the “Urban Homesteaders Day of Action” on February 21, imploring all urban homesteaders to blog and post videos celebrating their homesteading experiences.  A petition -- which has already secured over 1,500 signatures -- was also created, requesting that the Dervaes’ digital properties and services be boycotted until they agree to cancel the trademarks.

Time will tell if the Dervaes’ will continue to fight for their trademarks and whether this will have any lasting impact on the urban homesteading community.  But for now, it seems the urban homesteading movement is gaining momentum and has no intentions of sitting back and taking this issue lightly.

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Lesley Lammers headshot

Lesley Lammers is a freelance sustainability consultant and journalist, focused on the intersection between the environment, food, social impact, human rights, health and entrepreneurship.

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