hendrik-cornelissen--qrcOR33ErA-unsplashWhen it comes to products, names mean a lot, as do descriptors; some of the best brands are able to work descriptions into the name so as to leave no ambiguity as to what you're getting. The abstract or esoteric works for books that are looking to win awards, but is far less useful to other work that requires an audience to understand what is being offered so they can determine if they want to watch it. Within that rubric, creators are generally limited in how to describe any film or show; as much as we wish our vocabulary was more expansive, we generally confine ourselves to a few terms to describe certain ideas and concepts, and so it becomes hard for any creator to claim ownership over those terms.

Those limits were at the heart of the case between National Geographic and the documentary filmmaker Marty Stouffer — a case which was decided in favor of National Geographic. Stouffer has sued National Geographic over a documentary series the company created called "Untamed Americas", which he argued violated his copyright for his series "Wild America" from the early 1980s. His assertion wasn't over the subject matter — it would be an absurd case to claim some sort of ownership over the notion of filming American wilderness though someone will eventually try — but rather the name of the National Geographic series, which he claimed hewed a bit too close to the name of his own series.

As Timothy Geigner points out in the TechDirt article, the outcome of the case hinged upon First Amendment arguments in protecting against specious trademark claims; namely, that the title of the National Geographic series served as an accurate description of the content therein, and that descriptors of any such programming is limited to common terms in the lexicon for untamed wilderness. (Merriam-Webster also turns up unbroken and undomesticated, both of which are more suggestive of dogs relieving themselves in your house.)

So while trademark might offer seemingly unlimited possibilities for the erudite entrepreneur, there's a practical limit placed by a necessity to be understood — to effectively communicate with consumers and audiences. There's also fortunately limits to those who might try and make bad-faith efforts to trademark common words or phrases, as though they could somehow claim ownership of them; after all, trademark is about what represents a particular brand or product, and so a common term would hardly do so for any product, no matter how much a creator may want it to. trademark walks a middle road; one, ironically, in which "wild" is well-trod ground.

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