Michigan AG Rules M-22 can't be trademarked

via Absolute Michigan – also see comments from M-22 legal counsel regarding the ruling…

UPDATE: Peter Payette of Interlochen Public Radio looked at the issue of trademarking Michigan road signs, talking with M-22’s attorney Enrico Schaefer of Traverse Legal and Aaron Wong of Price Heneveld.

M-22 Euphoria by Chris CerkThe Detroit Free Press reports that M-22 (and M-119) cannot be trademarked by private companies. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has ruled that the highway sign logos are public property and as such cannot be “commandeered” for private use.

“Because the State of Michigan, the creator of the design, placed the Michigan highway route marker design in the public domain, no entity can lawfully obtain intellectual property protection of the design under trademark or copyright law,” Schuette concluded.

“…The fact that they have appropriated the design from the public domain and affixed it to merchandise does not create a legitimate basis for trademark protection.”

That’s probably not the best news at M-22, the clothing business that has made the sign an iconic symbol of active life in Leelanau & northwest lower Michigan, but it doesn’t look like the ruling precludes them selling clothing and other products with the road sign on it.

Speaking of M-22, they  are holding their annual M-22 Challenge this weekend at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The annual bike/run/kayak triathalon is a pretty cool spectator event if you’re in the area!

Here’s M-22 and M-119 (aka the Tunnel of Trees) on Wikipedia.

Photo credit: M-22 Euphoria by Chris Cerk

Commentary from Enrico Schaefer, Founding Partner at Traverse Legal, PLC

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette must know that trademarks, copyrights and other IP are matters of federal law. The State has no say in the matter. His opinion has no force under law at all. More importantly, his “opinion” is severely misguided and uninformed. Taken to its conclusion, no artist or photographer can have intellectual property rights in their artwork or photographs of state parks, buildings, landscapes, roads, etc. Public universities, funded with public dollars, could not hold IP either in their logos, trademarks or patents. Neither could the state of Michigan protect, for instance, its Pure Michigan campaign which has tens of millions of dollars invested in its campaign. It is also important to note that trademarking these road signs has literally no impact on the public domain rights. Assuming that these companies who have invested time and money creating IP rights around road signs to create valuable brands (no easy tasks for sure), the only impact is to keep someone from copying that use as a trademark. All other non-trademark uses, for instance to identify location, as always permitted. By limiting the trademark use to a single business who (a) was first in the market and (b) invested substantial money and risk in creating the market), companies are created which generate tax revenue and jobs. Without trademark protection, consumers are left with cheap knock-offs and imitations. Consumers can not identify source and the market is destroyed. What Schuette fails to comprehend is that without trademark protection, there can be no Nike or Microsoft or Google. Consumers would not buy products based on brand because consumers could never gauge quality based on a trustworthy source.

Thank goodness his overreaching is without effect, since the adverse impact to the Michigan intellectual property economy could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars or more. This appears to be just another example of overzealous government bureaucrats trying to expand their reach and control over Michigan businesses. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette proves once again he knows nothing about commerce and business. He has certainly proven he knows little about intellectual property.

12 replies
  1. Judy Granger
    Judy Granger says:

    Thank you! M-22 a way of life?! C’mon people, it’s a ROAD! A beautiful one indeed, but not a way of life.

  2. Will Harper
    Will Harper says:

    M-22 has promoted a positive image of Michigan and Michigan tourism for over five years at no cost to taxpayers. Compare that to the Pure Michigan campaign which we all pay for, and we dont even get a t-shirt! The reach and exposure of M-22 nationwide has been incredible. M-22 is a growing company and is an employer and tax paying business. M-22 has been nothing but positive for this state, and everyone who lives here. It has also been a huge supporter of environmental causes and other non-profits in the area.
    It could not have been done without copyright protection. I just cannot grasp the thinking of a government official who would be against this. The opinion of the AG is clearly anti-business and anti-Michigan. And probably legally incorrect.
    Fortunately, this grandstanding will most likely amount to nothing.

  3. Nate Davis
    Nate Davis says:

    @ Judy: M-22 is a brand that REPRESENTS a way of life…
    Whenever I am out hiking, biking, enjoying the water or just poking around our beautiful state, I find that I have driven on M22 in order to enjoy all the activities that make up what my life is. Makes perfect sense to me!

  4. Judy Granger
    Judy Granger says:

    Goodness, gracious! I think the beauty of this area, the trees, the dunes, the water, the rolling hills, represent the way of life in this area. So you want to talk money? I see that this is what this is about…money. Who do you think is paying for the replacement of all of the M-22 roadway signs that are being stolen..certainly NOT the taxpayers, right? Wrong! So, you see, this is not a free campaign afterall. Don’t worry, you can still use all the M-22 logo you want, you just cannot copyright it.

  5. Will
    Will says:

    Judy I think you miss the forest for the trees. M-22 (the company) in no way condones or encourages any illegal activity or acts of vandalism such as stealing road signs. They now sell replicas in hopes that people will STOP this nonsense. However, the theft of M-22 signs has been going on for years, long before the company was started.
    That said, it is still a small price to pay for the overwhelming positive image building of the area. Once again compare the few hundred dollars in road sign costs to the millions spent on Pure Michigan. The benefits to the area in increased tourism revenue for hundreds of businesses in the area is priceless. Almost all businesses in the area grandly support M-22 and what it does for the area. They also donate significantly to the Leelanau Conservancy and other groups, so I’m just not seeing where your sour grapes are coming from.

  6. Rick
    Rick says:

    Maybe the State is upset they didn’t think of selling M22 products… (Dang, why didn’t I think of that?!). Follow the money on this one and the State probably doesn’t get any direct profit (taxes not withstanding). Kudos for the idea and we have chosen to buy a few of their products. The risk is real for another company of competing on this idea (this is america isn’t it?), but the M22 guys have the advantage of being local and having the ground up beginning of a great idea. Thanks for doing what you do!

  7. Autumn
    Autumn says:

    I just bought a line of Tea, from Mackinac Tea & Spice, for my store BECAUSE they carried a “Rooibos Route 22” and they taste good. Many company’s use the symbol because it has a wonderful feeling associated with it and always did have not because of a new campaign.

  8. I-75
    I-75 says:

    M-22 Store Dude,
    I don’t blame you for grousing about this, but you can’t claim exclusive right to someone else’s intellectual property. Be glad you got away with it for five years, lick your wounds and count your money and move on.
    Or start an M-119 store while the franchise is still available.

  9. common sense
    common sense says:

    It is simple. They copied the artwork from the state- It is not original. Never heard of being able to trademark another persons artwork……..The guy (or girl) sitting at the desk designing road signs for the state should get his or her cut then! ( oh – they can’t because it is owned by the state…duh)

    This would also be like 1 store trademarking “Traverse City” for use on t-shirts…..

    They should of came up with an Original Logo that would allow protection because of its unique qualities.

    I think i will try to trademark “Sleeping Bear Dunes” & then marvel in the fact that everyone loves my design……Even though people wanted the shirt because of the beautiful surroundings / not any work that i did…. Give me a break!

  10. i SK 8
    i SK 8 says:

    I have to agree with the comment from I-75 #10. Smart idea and a great logo, but, you DID copy the intellectual property; enjoy your profits and “move on”.

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