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Oakland Homesteading School Caught in Trademark Tussle (Updated)

A Pasadena-based family holds rights to "urban homesteading," much to local homesteaders' surprise

When K. Ruby Blume, the founder of Oakland’s Institute of Urban Homesteading received a letter last week informing her that the terms “urban homestead” and “urban homesteading” had been trademarked, she took it in stride.

The letter, from the Dervaes family of the Pasadena-based Dervaes Institute and the owners of UrbanHomestead.org “was very polite,” recalls Blume. It informed her that the family had registered the trademark and suggested she begin using alternative terms like “modern homesteading” and “sustainable living” for the work she does.

Blume, who has been teaching and organizing classes on everything from cheese-making to beekeeping to DIY graywater management out of her North Oakland home since 2008, had a hard time wrapping her brain around the request. But she began taking it seriously when she learned that the Dervaes had sent similar letters to Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen, the authors of  2008 book “The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City”; a Santa Monica farmers market and a journalist in Los Angeles who had hosted panel discussions using term.  

“They’re trying to own something that’s being used for the common good,” Blume said, whose appeared alongside others in an OC Weekly blog post this week. “These terms have been around since the mid-70s, in magazines like Mother Earth News and others.”

With a fairly common term like “urban homesteading,” the trademark bar to enforcement can be high, although the Dervaes did register two terms, “Urban Homestead” and “Urban Homesteading” in October of last year.

“In order to win in a trademark infringement lawsuit, Urban Homesteading, the people claiming as a trademark would have to show that the mark is not descriptive or generic,” said Jed Wakefield, a San Francisco lawyer not associated with the case, “And if it’s descriptive, people would associate it with them and not basic concept of urban homesteading.”

To prove that link, Wakefield said that parties often take surveys, asking people what their associations are with specific words of phrases.

But the Dervaes family didn’t stop at the letter. After receiving the letter, Blume logged onto Facebook to find that her access to the institute’s page had been blocked. And she was not alone: all pages that used the terms had removed from Facebook, including the 2,000+ member page of Denver Urban Homesteading, another small, local business which seemed to pose no clear competition to the Dervaes’ operation.

“They’re trying to boot out everybody whose using urban homesteading to describe what they do, so they can make it distinctive,” says Blume. “That’s what a lot of big corporations do.” 

The Devaes did not respond to The Bay Citizen's request for comment.

This sense of legal entitlement is not new for the Dervaes family, which owns a handful of other trademarks, including Homegrown Revolution® and Little Homestead in the City®. They address the issue at the top of an FAQ section of their website, saying “We began to see the terms ‘Urban Homestead’ and ‘Urban Homesteading’ used as ‘green-washed bandwagon’ terms solely for profit.”

Blume and other "modern homesteaders" are seeking pro bono legal help to challenge the trademark. In the meantime, the Oakland homesteader has put up a new page on Facebook that uses the somewhat awkward version of the term spelled “home-steading(s).” The similarly titled Take Back Urban Home-steading(s) page already has attracted 1,400 fans in less than 24 hours.  

“The term belongs to a national movement,” says Blume. And the virtual waterfall of backyard farming and animal husbandry photos on the Take Back Urban Home-steading(s) page support her claim. But Blume’s plight highlights a paradox of this century’s revival of noncommercial living strategies from the ‘70s, like homesteading and back-to-the-land movement — namely, can something popular resist commoditization?   Take the book she co-authored that’s due out this April; it’s called “Urban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living. “

“I wasn’t our first choice for a title,” says Blume. “The publishers had final say but they chose it because they thought it was the most saleable.”

Updated, 4:48 p.m.

On the phone this afternoon Jules Dervaes acknowledged sending the letter to 16 organizationsand businesses (including two publishers), and requesting that the Fabecook pages be taken down. He did want to clarify that – contrary to some rumors – he has not gone after blogs or individuals. “They're all commercial ventures that rival us,” he said. Because the Dervaeses travel often for workshops and talks, he says, the trademark is applicable outside of their hometown of Los Angeles.

Mr. Dervaes is concerned that his intent has been blown out of proportion by challengers, and says “We didn’t come up the name but we came up with the application.” He says his family spent three years convincing the United States Patent and Trademark Office that their use of the term was unique, and had to appeal several times because it was so similar to “urban home,” a previously trademarked term.

“If someone else would have done it first, all my work of ten years would be in jeopardy,” he adds. “We didn’t mean to bully anyone. These marks are what people do to make sure no one infringes on their ideas – they’re to give people who develop something protection. That’s why people like Apple and Nike do it. We did what other normal people would have done.”

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