Owners of M-22 logo promise to "go down fighting"

Sep 5, 2012

Several years ago, brothers Matt and Keegan Myers had an idea - capitalize on the love people have for the Leelanau County area by selling t-shirts, hats, coffee cups, bumper stickers, wine, and other items with the state highway M-22 logo on them.

State highway M-22 winds through the scenic coastal areas northwest of Traverse City, and along the Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan's "pinkie."

The idea took off. The brothers trademarked the logo. And annual sales continue to increase ($2 million this year, according to the WSJ).

But as other retailers began to use the idea, the Myer's brothers fought to protect their trademark rights, saying they had exclusive rights to all other state-highway signs in Michigan.

The Wall Street Journal's Matt Dolan reports their trademark claim has hit a roadblock with Michigan's Attorney General Bill Schuette.

This spring, Michigan's attorney general ruled that all state road signs, including M-22, are in the public domain, and widely available to citizens to use as they wish—especially in service of the state's tourist trade.

"They didn't build it," says Carolyn Sutherland, owner of the Good Hart General Store, who sought the ruling on behalf of her souvenir shop along Highway M-119 in Good Hart, Mich., using a familiar campaign refrain this year. Pointing at her store, she added: "I built that, and I should be able to sell my own address."

In the opinion, Attorney General Schuette stated:

Both federal and Michigan law support the conclusion that no entity may lawfully commandeer the Michigan route marker design as its exclusive trademark because the design is in the public domain.

The Myers brothers, who also own and operate a kiteboarding business - Broneah, say Schuette's decision jeopardizes a business they've spent more than $1 million building, and they promise to "go down fighting."

Trademarks on images or logos that are in the public domain are common, reports Dolan.

But the M-22 logo might be in uncharted territory.

Federal records show at least 794 registered trademarks on stylized versions of road signs, but it is unclear how many unadulterated road signs like M-22 have trademark protection, says Brendan Way, a San Francisco lawyer who specializes in intellectual property.

Dolan reports cease and desist orders from the Myers brothers' lawyer have stopped most other vendors from selling merchandise with a Michigan state highway sign logo, but Schuette's ruling may have opened the door for these vendors.