In Michigan, A Highway Sign Is At Center Of An Unusual Trademark Dispute

Nov 1, 2016
Originally published on November 1, 2016 2:02 pm

There's an unusual fight underway in Michigan over a simple black-and-white sign that identifies a state highway. That highway runs through a popular vacation region. And one business claims it has the exclusive right to use the road sign as a product brand.

But the state disagrees, and the trademark dispute is now in federal court.

The M-22 highway in northern Michigan is considered one of the nation's most scenic drives. For 116 miles, it hugs the Lake Michigan shoreline and offers stunning views of woodlands, cherry orchards and vineyards.

The M-22 highway sign has become iconic. The black-and-white logo graces cars and T-shirts, and even a wine label.

For visitors like Jodi Olson of Aurora, Ill., the M-22 logo is a happy reminder of being "up north" in Michigan resort country. She has an M-22 sticker on the upper left corner of the tailgate on her SUV.

"It's God's country, is what I say. It's beautiful. The water ... it's just absolutely gorgeous," she says.

The M22 business was started a dozen years ago by Matt Myers and his brother.

"We created something. A brand like ours never existed before," Myers says. "Nobody was selling shirts like this, or created a brand like this around something like the road."

The brothers trademarked the logo in 2007. Myers says it protects their business and their customers from cheap knockoffs.

"It's all about the thought and the detail and the love and the passion that we've put into our brand. And that's what's made it into what it is today," he says.

Myers is quick to point out the trademark does not mean he and his brother own the M-22 logo. "Anyone can do anything they want with it as long as it doesn't confuse our customers," Myers says.

He says that means a towing company, for example, or a party store, that want to use the M-22 brand would be fine because those don't compete with their retail business.

But the M22 company said the Good Hart General Store was competing with it. That store is located on another northern Michigan scenic route, M-119 , which is sometimes called the "Tunnel of Trees" and runs roughly 30 miles along Lake Michigan.

The M22 company said the general store's M-119 wine label was too much like its brand. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette then declared that state highway signs are in the public domain for anyone to use, and he filed a lawsuit challenging the M-22 trademark.

"M-22, the American flag, the U.S. Capitol — it's everybody's flag, everybody's Capitol, everybody's road. Nobody can stop others from taking their picture, putting it on a T-shirt, and trying to market it," Schuette says.

Mark Janis heads the Center for Intellectual Property Research at Indiana University's law school. "I don't know that there's anything exactly like this, but I think the state has a tough hill to climb here," he says. Janis says a highway sign doesn't really compare to the flag or the capitol, which under trademark law are considered "insignias" — official symbols of government authority.

"But there's at least a question, as far as I can tell, as to whether a road sign of this type would be deemed an official insignia of a state," he says. "I think that might be a little bit hard for the state to prove here."

In the meantime, the Michigan Department of Transportation has its own issues with the popularity of the M-22 highway signs. People keep stealing them, and they're expensive to replace.

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There is an unusual fight underway in Michigan over a simple black-and-white sign that identifies a state highway. One business claims it has the exclusive right to use the road sign as a product brand. The state disagrees. And as Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta reports, the trademark dispute is now in federal court.

RICK PLUTA, BYLINE: The M-22 highway in northern Michigan is considered one of the nation's most scenic drives. For 116 miles, it hugs the Lake Michigan shoreline and offers stunning views of woodlands, cherry orchards and vineyards. The M-22 highway sign has become iconic. The black-and-white logo graces cars and T-shirts, even a wine label. For visitors like Jodi Olson of Aurora, Ill., the M-22 logo is a happy reminder of being up north in Michigan resort country. She has an M-22 sticker on the upper-left corner of the tailgate of her SUV.

JODI OLSON: It's God's country, is what I say. It's beautiful. The water, the - it's just absolutely gorgeous.

PLUTA: The M22 business was started a dozen years ago by Matt Myers and his brother.

MATT MYERS: We created something. A brand like ours never existed before. Nobody was selling shirts like this or created a brand like this around something like the road.

PLUTA: The brothers trademarked the logo in 2007. Myers says it protects their business and their customers from cheap knockoffs.

MYERS: It's all about the thought and the detail and the love and the passion that we've put into our brand. And that's what's made it, really, what it is today.

PLUTA: Myers is quick to point out the trademark does not mean he and his brother own the M-22 logo.

MYERS: Anybody can do whatever they want with it as long as it doesn't confuse our customers.

PLUTA: Myers says that means a towing company, for example, or a party store that want to use the M-22 brand would be fine because they don't compete with their retail business. But the M22 company said the Good Hart General Store was competing with it. That store is located on another northern Michigan scenic route, M-119, which is sometimes called the tunnel of trees.

It runs roughly 30 miles along Lake Michigan. The M22 company said the Good Hart General Store's M-119 wine label was too much like its brand. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette then declared that state highway signs are in the public domain for anyone to use, and he filed a lawsuit challenging the M-22 trademark.

BILL SCHUETTE: M-22, the American flag, the U.S. Capitol - it's everybody's flag, everybody's Capitol, everybody's road. Nobody can stop others from taking their picture, putting it on a T-shirt and trying to market it.

MARK JANIS: I don't know that there's anything exactly like this, but I think the state has a tough hill to climb here.

PLUTA: Mark Janis heads the Center for Intellectual Property Research at Indiana University's law school. Janis says a highway sign doesn't really compare to the flag or the Capitol, which, under trademark law, are considered insignias - official symbols of government authority.

JANIS: But there's at least a question, as far as I can tell, as to whether a road sign of this type would be deemed an official insignia of a state. I think that might be a little bit hard for the state to prove here.

PLUTA: In the meantime, the Michigan Department of Transportation has its own issues with the popularity of the M-22 highway sign - people keep stealing them, and they're expensive to replace. For NPR News, I'm Rick Pluta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.