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Who is the true Urban Homesteader (TM)?

For more than a decade, the Dervaes family of Pasadena has labored to turn their one-fifth-acre lot into a self-sufficient, sustainable farm. When the Los Angeles Times checked in with them in 2007, they were producing much of their own power, although they hadn't gone entirely off the grid yet. There were still some foodstuffs they'd buy, but they'd regularly sell produce and duck eggs to local restaurants.

"People thought, and I did too, that we couldn't make it on such a small piece of land," patriarch Jules Dervaes told The Times. But he decided "we're going to grow as much as we can on this property for a living. I was going to live off this come hell or high water."

In the years that Dervaes has been doing his urban gardening thing, the ideas and practices have become widely popular. Our own Susan Carpenter tried a two-year experiment in eco-living, discovering what worked (gray water reuse) and some hard lessons (backyard chickens make easy prey, even in the city). Not surprisingly, bookstores now stock a plethora of memoirs, guides and how-to books that address the project of city folk living sustainably.

This is complicated by the fact that in October 2010, Dervaes trademarked the phrases Urban Homestead and Urban Homesteading. According to the O.C. Weekly, he recently has been sending out cease-and-desist letters to those using the phrase, including KCRW's radio show "Good Food" (which had used it in a blog post) and the Santa Monica Public Library, which held a free event on the topic.

One book has gotten caught up in Dervaes' campaign: "The Urban Homestead" by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen. The authors, who also live here in L.A., published the book in 2008 and maintain a blog with tips and chronicles of their sustainable-living efforts. Apparently the recipients of one of Dervaes' letters, they have, according to BoingBoing, found legal representation with the Electronic Freedom Foundation. (They did not respond to request for comment. It's OK: They're probably in the yard, mulching).

When the book came out, Knutzen spoke to the L.A. Times. Back then, we asked him about the now-trademarked term Urban Homestead. Knutzen explained:

It's a phrase that's been floating around since the '70s.  That's the earliest I've seen a reference to an "Urban Homestead." The magazine Mother Earth News, a classic resource for back-to-the-land hippies, and still a wonderful resource, had a bunch of stories in the 1970s that used the expression "Urban Homestead."

There's also a classic example in Berkeley from the early 1970s that was an experiment in self-reliant living in the city called the Integral Urban House. It was a very ambitious project based in Berkeley aimed at setting up a self-reliant urban household. For instance, they had fish ponds with bee hives over the fish ponds. The dead bees would fall into the ponds, providing food for the fish. The goal was to apply principles of the back-to-the-land movement to living in the city.

Interestingly, Knutzen expressed some dissatisfaction with his book's title, saying, "the word homestead suggests a sort of Little House on the Prairie, completely self-sufficient life.  Our focus isn't on that kind of extreme living but on small things that anyone can do."

Which probably did not include getting involved in legal tusslings over sustainable-living phraseology.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos: At top left, Jules Dervaes in 2007. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (15)

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Is Jules Dervaes delusional or merely greedy? He can't truly believe he invented this movement that's been around since the 70s, can he? He claims to be protecting "his" intellectual property from corporations, but in the cease-and-desist letter to Google he identifies his family as a corporation: "Full legal name of the copyright holder: Dervaes Institute A Corporation Sole". He claims to be living off the land but he has built up a wide-ranging financial empire involving, merchandise, advertising and speaking fees. The more information that comes out about him, the more he seems like Montgomery Burns with a hoe clenched in his fist.

These comments are interesting, but a caricature right out of the Simpsons doesn't seem to advance your point, merely cheapens it. Check out the real people strarting their own Homegrown Revolution! Of course Dervaes' daughters, real nice ladies, started the site I suggest you ponder: PathToFreedom.org

whoops... PathToFreedom.com , do your research...

I did a search in Google Books and found the term "urban homestead" in legal documents going back to the mid-1800s.

It seems to me the Dervaes family has done what so many others have done, made their own American Dream and taken the steps necessary to protect their business interests.

The USPTO requires a very stringent, and lengthy, application process. It takes time and money. It gives ample opportunity to anyone - business or interested person - to raise concerns over misuse or misappropriation of any trademarked phrase. I'm sure the Dervaes application went through these same steps like any other application.

Why should the Santa Monica Public Library get to use a registered trademark as the name for one of it's lectures without being asked to refrain from doing so without attribution? Why shouldn't Good Food - having once been champions of the Dervaes' project - be respectful of the copyright issues?

Why should anyone think the Dervaes' will find any real trouble in defending themselves? It's clear their idea has been borrowed from based on the singular fact that all of the offenders are based in CA. 1million site hits, around for 20+ years promoting the concept as a business model... I think I'll go eat a peach.

Hi Good Shepherd,

There are many legal errors the Dervaes family have made in their actions regarding this Trademark issue. It has affected people nationwide, especially in their demand for Facebook to dismantle anyone's page whose title contained the words urban homestead and urban homesteading. One that I know of is a farmers market in Denver.

For more information on the legal matters before the Dervaes family, the EFF has filed for all actions taken by the Dervaes to be redacted. Here is a link for more information: http://www.eff.org/files/LTTDervaes.pdf

My family lived off grid in a town house with a large garden in the 1970s we kept two goats chickens grew a huge amount of our own food, heated our house with wood from skips or gathered in local woods, we collected wild food .
we lived without electricity for about 8 years , I don't keep goats anymore but Ive been doing the rest for since I was about 8 thats 38 years ago .
We were inspired by the complete book of self-sufficiency and 1970s books like the complete urban farmer , and British tv series like the good life .
So I really don't see that this fellow came up with the idea of urban homesteading, it was commonly used amongst hippies back in the 1970s

Good Shepherd, What part of "The Dervaeses did not invent the phrase or the ida of Urban Homsteading" do you not get? I don't mind them making a buck. I do mind them telling other people they can't call it what it is and has been for longer then they've been doing it.

They will lose and lose big.

Good Shepherd - The Denver Urban Homestead group was a victim of these people's greed, as well. Of course, you may not realize this, but Denver is NOT in California. And what of the The Virginia company Urban Homestead, which has been in business since 1992? Did THEY magically mine Jules Dervaes' "intellectual property" before he even thought of it? Face it. The Dervaes family are riding a wave, not making it. And they saw a good opportunity to coopt a movement, and use it to pay for that Jonestown they plan to build in Costa Rica. They may be good at what they do, but it's basically celebu-steading, not urban homesteading.

My understanding is that they have just applied for the trademark and that is has not yet been approved. Additionally, they applied for the same trademark in 2008 and they were denied. I think they ought to be ashamed of themselves.

It is baffling to me that Dervaes' trademark claim was accepted to begin with. The term has been in common use for the last forty years, and at least a decade before Dervaes started his urban farm. Good Sheppard, you might note the existence of Denver Urban Homesteading, an organization located in Colorado. You might also note the existence of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, a 35-year old non-profit organization in New York City. With a book published bearing the title "The Urban Homestead" before Dervaes even filed his trademark claim, I'm not sure how the words can be seen as his intellectual property.

Basically, the wide-spread uproar is about an act of theft from the commons. Thousands of people consider themselves to be urban homesteaders, pursuing the art of the urban homestead – frequently, without any knowledge of the Dervaeses. I'm one of them. My own homesteading ideals owe greatly to heroes of the original back-to-the-land movement including Helen and Scott Nearing, Ernest Callenbach, and Alicia Bay Laurel, to modern-day writers such as Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen, Sharon Astyk, and Barbara Kingsolver.

Having looked at the Dervaes website, I see little that adds to my existing resources, and I am not interested in the philosophies of someone who has demonstrated himself to be greedy and dishonest.

The Dervaeses admit they didn't coin the phrase. They just claim to have "defined its current, specific application." Basically, they believe that because they were doing it and blogging about it before it was trendy, they invented it. Jules calls himself the founder of the movement. It is complete egotism and insanity. There have been tons of other urban homesteaders for decades. I'm sure a huge percentage of them never heard of this family. And how crazy that they are trying to prevent people from selling books and sharing information when they offer very little, if any, instructional information that helps people out. Sure, they inspire people by showing pictures of what they have accomplished and constantly promoting themselves in the media, but what good does that do people actually interested in urban homesteading?


I don't see what special for community Dervaes did that our country should prize him with exclusive rights and roylties for common used phrases? 10 years ago he started with some wild flowers that suddenly became acceptable to eat. During 10 years he developed HIS OWN garden for HIS OWN family. He eats his vegetables and sells it at very high prise to local restaurants (family business). In addition to he doesn't pay taxes being a church (does anybody know other members of his church besides his own family?). He charges for everything and now wants to charge all country to fulfil his dream to be a landlord for 60 families to keep them under his control. everything looks absolutely great. All the above information was available on Dervaes websites and from his interviews - nothing from me personally. Good luck, Dervaes!

The very fact that people want to label themselves "urban homesteader" and cling so hard to that trendy label as opposed calling themselves simply "gardener" or "farmer" says a lot about why the mark in question is so valuable commercially.

The Dervaes family has said: "We will not [nor it is our intention to] squelch the use of Urban Homestead or Urban Homesteading nor will we go about hindering this movement by those who are living the lifestyle." I sit corrected if, in fact, copyright infringement notices were national or worldwide in scope - that was not my understanding. I sit corrected if every person who feels they, too, are an "urban homesteader" was sent a C&D by the Dervaes family. I was unaware, mistakes are made, thugwife.

Another commenter said it best: The Dervaes family acknowledges they didn't coin the phrase, but defined a current, specific application. That's how registering a trademark works. My initial point, which was missed by so many of the vitriolic posters here, is that as it stands presently, the current owners of the mark in question have a legal right to protect the mark. Period. They have a legal right - if you think that because the EFF fired off a letter without proofreading it first the legal rights and remedies associated with the registered trademark no longer exist, you misunderstand trademarks in the grandest sense. Let me put it to you another way: I'd take the advice of a Facebook lawyer before I'd take the advice of anyone at the EFF.

I'll be following this forward but not posting again. I do not know, nor am I affiliated with the Dervaes family. I'm simply against the hatred, contempt and allegations of greed, deception and even insanity, that I've seen leveled against the family. Sowing bad seeds + rocky ground = no fruit.

I will continue to call myself an urban homesteader and will not refer to any purported trademark claims by someone who has a Messianic Complex and is trying to co-opt the current interest in and momentum of the thousands of homesteaders who came before him and who will remain long after his greedy attempts at self-aggrandizement have withered on the vine.

It is becoming clearer that Mr. Dervaes (and to some extent the Dervaes clan) have reached a point in their "movement" that feel they no longer need or care about the opinions of the many other early movers in the current homesteading movement.

I will continue to support other urban homesteaders and will not suffer any loss of sleep out of fear of the wrath of any Trademark Inquisitors.


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