Board members of UnionDocs were contacted recently by Leslie Kelen, executive director of The Center for Documentary Arts in Salt Lake City, who had a curious and somewhat disturbing matter to bring to our attention regarding the way we describe ourselves.

A non-profit organization in Texas is apparently near the end stages in the process of trademarking the name “documentary arts.” If this pending trademark is granted, Kelen’s organization and many others (such as UnionDocs) may no longer be able to use the same words to characterize their focus.

We were all pretty shocked and also a little intrigued – intellectual property has been one of the subjects we’ve been researching for an upcoming project. When we decided on our description, it was clear to us that “documentary arts” was an established term to described a specific class of work… a genre, more or less. The Tate Britain Musuem for instance has a collection titled 1930s Documentary Art.

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Kelen agreed, explaining that in 2000 his organization had changed their name from The Oral History Institute to The Center for Documentary Arts to reflect an expanded range of activities and interests. They also felt the need to differentiate their approach from both academic and popular ideas of the word documentary. “We understood that some documentary work straddled a very interesting and unusual border between formal documentation and the arts.”

Alan Govenar, founder of the Texas-based Documentary Arts, Inc., however, saw things differently. Kelen says that it was directly after the newly re-named Center for Documentary Arts reached out seeking support from an organization with similar interests that Govenar’s organization began pursuing a trademark for its name.

Alan Govenar

Alan Govenar

Though both companies were registered non-profit, Govenar apparently perceived a major threat to the identity of his organization in sharing this somewhat loosely defined space.In the application for the trademark, Govenar claims to have coined the phrase “documentary arts” and suggests that the pairing of the two words creates an oxymoron. In this view, documentary is a discipline striving for pure objective communication; whereas art is a discipline that thrives exclusively on subjective expression. Pairing the two is simply a contradiction.

Theoretical discussion and etymology aside, it seems that that protection may be granted to Govenar. The trademark commission has dismissed an objection filed by members of The Center for Documentary Arts and they have just a few weeks to make an appeal. The prohibitive cost and time required for lawyer fees may make putting up a fight difficult, but Kelen has been reaching out to others who use the term in an effort to find allies.

One thought has been to attempt to take this out of the legal arena and see if a community of concerned individuals would be able to dissuade Govenar’s organization from following through with the application. And of course, there are limits to the power of trademark. A common word, phrase, or other sign can only be removed from the public domain to the extent that a trademark owner is able to maintain exclusive rights over that sign in relation to certain products or services.

If you have any thoughts or ideas about this conflict please comment on this posting. We would like to create a sort of informal petition recording people’s opinion. Cheap