Trouble on the urban homestead: Is Canada safe?

A battle is waging in the green community south of the border. It isn’t about chemical versus organic or genetically modified versus heirloom. It’s about words, and who has the right to use them.

The words are urban homestead and urban homesteading – commonly applied to the growing movement (no pun) that covers front-yard veggies or back-yard chickens. As phrases, they’ve been seen in Battleground U.S.A. since the 1970s, if not before. You’ll find them in book and blog titles and organization names, countrywide. In Canada, too.

Among urban homesteading’s many proponents are California’s Dervaes family. In fact, the Dervaeses have become pretty famous as urban homesteaders.

Or make that infamous.

For reasons that mystify me, and a slew of others, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recently granted the Dervaeses exclusive trademark rights to these terms. As a result, the family (or their legal advisors) has taken steps to restrict people from using them. They’ve shut down Facebook pages (including ones pre-dating the trademark) and sent warning letters to bloggers, authors, even a library.

The Dervaes family is not making friends by their actions. Sadly, they’re squandering considerable goodwill. Right now, a Take Back Urban Home-steading(s) page on Facebook has over 4,000 members. Many are participating in an Urban Homesteaders Day of Action today, blanketing the e-waves with them thar words. There’s also a Twitter hashtag, #DumptheDervaeses. Indeed, the tweet on the street is that the Electronic Frontier Foundation has taken up the cause on behalf of The Urban Homestead authors Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen in a sternly worded cease and desist letter to the Dervaeses.

Now, I’m unsure that my winter-sown tomato seeds class me as an urban homesteader. However, I am a writer who cares about words. That leads me to wonder: Could this happen in Canada?

It might be a grey area of green. Here’s what the Canadian Intellectual Property Office has to say about trademarking descriptive phrases like this (italicized emphasis is mine):

Clearly descriptive marks

You may not register a word that describes an inherent feature of the goods or services, i.e., a word that is clearly descriptive.

For example, the words “sweet” for ice cream, “juicy” for apples, and “perfectly clean” for dry-cleaner services could not be registered as trade-marks. All good apples could be described as “juicy” and all ice cream as “sweet”; these are natural characteristics of the items. If you were allowed to register these words, no other apple sellers or ice cream vendors could use them to promote their goods; this would be unfair. But, again, if you can establish that “Sweet Ice Cream” has become so well-known that people will immediately think of your product (and no one else’s) when they read or hear these words, you may be allowed to register the trade-mark.

The Dervaeses made the case that people thought of their product (and no one else’s) when they used urban homestead or urban homesteading – and they managed to win their trademark.

This war of words may seem small when so many are fighting serious infringements of rights in other parts of the world. But that’s how revolutions spark. And you thought we gardeners were gentle folk.


  1. During my reading, I noticed a lot of people mentioning that the trademark was on the "Supplemental Register". That's not something we have in Canada, as far as I can tell. I spent quite a while reading about it until I could understand what that meant.

    Basically, they were told that they could have the trademark and that they could use the trademark symbol, BUT they did not have exclusive rights to the phrases, and that any challenge to it would be unlikely to stand up in court. They do NOT have a full trademark.

    It seems as if Jules Dervaes, who seems to be very much the "Patriarch" of the three of his grown children who are still at home, expected that everyone would say "Yes, father" and accept his right to the terms. And if people HAD – if after five years he could prove that no one else was using the terms and he had "acquired distinctiveness" – then he could have reapplied for a full trademark.

    Instead, if the EFF do take him to court over his actions, he's going to get his butt handed back to him.

  2. Thanks for dropping by and adding your thoughts, folks!

    Cdn Doomer, If you follow the Trademarkia link above, you'll see that the register type is listed as "Principal", which if accurate sounds like it would give the Dervaeses more rights than a "Supplemental" listing. Like you, I have also seen a few posts that say the trademark was only on the Supplemental Register; unsure where people got that info. I'm not a lawyer and know nothing about U.S. intellectual property law, so I can only guess what it all might mean.

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