The rumor spread like brushfire in the Western United States this summer:
Someone was copyrighting the names of local anticlines.
Talk about burning questions.
Who would DO that?
Would they demand payment for any published use of the names?
These weren't obvious surface features, like Big Horn Mountain (© 2003 David Brown) or the Elko Hills (© 2003 David Brown).
These were well-known structural features of local geology.
And that raises an interesting point.
Who owns the names used in geology?
In the end, who decides what names can be used officially for stratigraphy, structural features and fields?
Strangely enough, you do.
Please, Remain Calm!!
First of all, nobody panic.
In the United States, no one can copyright a name.
The following comes straight out of U.S. Copyright Office Information Circular 34:
"Names, titles and short phrases or expressions are not subject to copyright protection. Even if a name, title or short phrase is novel or distinctive or if it lends itself to a play on words, it cannot be protected by copyright."
Commercial activities -- think, product names -- can be protected by trademark.
Forget about trying to own a geological name yourself.
The North American Stratigraphic Code sets out formal rules for stratigraphic nomenclature. It doesn't protect names.
Structural nomenclature is pretty much up in the air.
Meanwhile, tongues wagged everywhere about the copyrighted anticlines.
Well, maybe not everywhere.
"I haven't heard of such a thing," said Lance Cook of the Wyoming State Geological Survey in Laramie, a past president of AAPG's Rocky Mountain Section.
"If they can get a copyright on that, I have some words I'd like to copyright so I can retire."
The North American Commission on Stratigraphic Nomenclature (NACSN) develops and oversees the Stratigraphic Code.
Robert R. Jordan is one of three AAPG member representatives on the commission, along with Donald Owen and Susan Longacre.
Jordan, now retired, served as Delaware State Geologist, director of the Delaware Geological Survey and a professor of geology at the University of Delaware.
He's an honorary member of both AAPG and the American Institute of Professional Geologists, a Fellow of the Geological Society of America and a former president of the Association of American State Geologists.
Jordan also has served twice as chair of the NACSN.
It's not a glamorous job.
"I'm grateful for any attention for the commission," Jordan said.
He described the commission's members as dedicated individuals making a long-term commitment to "giving service to the professional community."
"And none of us, so far as I know, have ever tried to copyright a name," he added.
Pass the Mustard
Jordan said the NACSN was established in 1946 to provide guidance for a formal stratigraphic nomenclature.
It aims to "provide a method of classifying the entities of geology and providing names for those things that are meaningful and can be communicated," he said.
Commission members come from major geological organizations and institutions in the United States, Canada and Mexico, and serve three-year terms.
Because of continuous developments in geology, the stratigraphic code must be a "living document," according to Jordan.
The commission makes sure the code is up to date.
"We are always learning more about stratigraphic units," he said. "We are always finding new stratigraphic units as we explore areas that haven't been explored before.
"Most importantly, geophysics has developed, seismostratigraphy has come along. Plate tectonics has changed," he said. "There are always new methods that come along."
After decades of refinement and amendments and expansion, the stratigraphic code has become a fairly lengthy and complex piece of work, Jordan noted.
"You wouldn't want to discuss it at your dinner table," he said.
What did have everyone talking was the effort to copyright the names of Western anticlines.
Okay, maybe not everyone.
"I have no knowledge of that," said John Snow of the Nevada Minerals Division in Carson City.
Snow, a petroleum engineer by training, did know that geologists use a formal, closely observed method for developing stratigraphic nomenclature.
Certain ... Procedures
Randall Orndorff works for the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va., where he's the associate program coordinator for the USGS National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program.
The program offers a handy and widely used Web site for the National Geologic Map Database at: http://ncgmp.usgs.gov/ngmdbproject/.
You can use the stratigraphic names database section of the map database site to look up names of formations in the United States.
Orndorff also serves as vice-chairman for the NACSN, and maintains its home page on the Web at: http://www.agiweb.org/nacsn/.
He said anyone can propose a name for a geological formation.
"There are certain procedures you have to go through," he said. "Of course, that means it has to be published."
Orndorff said a type section has to be identified and available for inspection, the new formation must be mappable, and it has to be "described to a T."
Stratigraphic names are subject to change as science develops, Orndorff noted. As an example, he cited the widespread use of paleontology to develop names many years ago.
"The fossils, as we've discovered over the years, are diachronous," he explained. "We want to be able to point people toward the rock type."
The Wah Wah West
You wouldn't want petroleum geologists choosing the names for all geologic formations.
They would all be called the Irritatingly Elusive formation.
Generally, the first identifier of a new stratigraphic unit chooses the name.
Orndorff said Western geologists tended to "come up with some colorful names."
Colorful is right.
The Great Blue, Green Ravine and Ochre Mountain are Mississippian formations in Utah.
You can find the Muddy Buttes sands in Colorado, the Rattlesnake formation in Oregon, the Epitaph dolomite in Arizona and the Grand Prize formation in Idaho.
The Rustler, Greenhorn, Horseshoe and Burro Canyon formations all exist in the Western United States.
Not to mention the Old Woman anticline, the Buffalo Fork fault, and the Poison Spider and Big Polecat oil fields.
Some names are just inherently elegant, like Utah's Wah Wah Thrust.
Orndorff said the NACSN uses a system of checks and balances to make sure stratigraphic names are unique.
But no one can "own" those names.
If you want to track down a rumor, you have to talk to a geologist who talks to a lot of other geologists.
David Hawk is director, energy natural resources, for J.R. Simplot Co. in Boise, Idaho. He's also president of AAPG's Rocky Mountain Section.
Asked if he had heard of anyone trying to copyright anticline names, Hawk said:
He did call the stratigraphic code "somewhat the Holy Grail by which we organize and classify."
Just Horse Sense
Jordan said the NACSN provides guidance only. It doesn't police the use of the code.
"The utilization of the code really depends on the editors of organizations that publish geological literature. That does not prevent anyone from using nomenclature informally," he said.
And the commission can't require the use of any stratigraphic name.
"There's no enforcement to say, 'Once it's published, you have to use this name,'" Orndorff commented.
"The question is, is it going to get used or not? It's up to the scientific community whether or not to use a name after it's published."
So, in the end, the larger community decides which names become official.
That's why Mount McKinley got its name in 1896, and now almost everyone calls it Denali.
An oil company that discovers a new field can choose the name for it -- subject to community response.
That's why BP's Crazy Horse field in the Gulf of Mexico is now called the Thunder Horse field.
Any geoscientist can propose a name for a geological entity.
If the scientific community embraces that name, it might someday be as standard as the term "petroleum geology (© 2003 David Brown)."
As for copyrighted anticlines, there's an old saying that you should believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see.
Not necessarily this half.