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Who owns the image for M-22?

Sep 13, 2016

There’s a fascinating intellectual property rights war going on that may have big implications for anyone who has a business and is thinking about using a symbol in the public domain. 

If you drive around much, you’ve likely seen bumper stickers and T-shirts bearing the familiar diamond-shaped M-22 logo that designated a scenic highway in the Leelanau Peninsula.

In fact, I had been idly wondering in the last few years about the explosion of what seems to be sort of an M-22 cult. The answer largely revolves around two brothers from Traverse City, Matt and Keegan Myers, who have a business called, M-22.

Actually, it grew out of an earlier kite boarding business they started before they hit on the idea of putting M-22 on T-shirts and other merchandise. They trademarked the design, and their business really took off. But then, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette stepped in.

His office claims that no one can trademark exclusive use of a state road sign. Andrea Bitely, his press secretary, said “the graphics used to designate our Michigan highways are similar to the American flag or the Route 66 sign.

No one in particular can own it because we all own it.” She told me the attorney general isn’t trying to stop M-22 from selling their products, but they can’t do so exclusively or prevent others from doing so.

“No one can buy the rights to and restrict others from using an image that resides in the public domain and is an important part of our highway system here in Michigan,” she added.

But John DiGiacamo, an intellectual property lawyer in Traverse City, says that is nonsense, and that businesses register logos that involve public symbols all the time, from the Statue of Liberty to the word “Michigan” on merchandise licensed by the U of M.

He noted that the brothers’ trademark was accepted by the federal government, and that a hearing on this is scheduled in October before the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.

Meanwhile, the attorney general has filed suit against the Myers brothers. The case, which was originally filed in Ingham County Circuit Court, has been transferred to federal court in Grand Rapids. It isn’t clear whether proceedings in that case will start before the Trademark Appeal Board has next been heard from.

Frankly, I can see the merits of both sides. The brothers are certainly enterprising and creative entrepreneurs.

As Michigan Radio’s Mark Brush has reported, federal records show there are nearly 800 registered trademarks on stylized versions of road signs, but many of those don’t duplicate the actual sign itself.

But the Myers’ also appear to want to have it both ways. Matt Myers told me that they are just a small business which is being bullied, but at the same time they’ve posted that they should be supported because “M-22 has generated millions of dollars in taxes,” for the state.

They say they have never sued anyone for trademark infringement – but do admit that “we have sent ‘cease and desist letters’ if someone is infringing on our trademark,” something that certainly could be interpreted as a threat to sue. They also apparently claim exclusive rights to other highway signs in the state.

It will be very interesting to see how this is finally resolved.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.