If you travel in Northern Lower Michigan, you will see merchandise with a Logo of “M 22” in a traffic sign. M-22 is a popular scenic highway along Lake Michigan in Manistee, Benzie and Leelanau County, and fifteen years ago, two brothers printed up a shirt with the popular logo.
Tourists associate “M-22” with an up-north feeling and began to purchase the merchandise to retain the happy memories of vacation spent in the towns, lakes, rivers and shores within this section of Michigan. The logo can be seen on vehicle’s stickers throughout Michigan. Often bringing a smile to shivering commuter in Metro Detroit on a cold February morning with both recalled events in warm sunshine, and expectant hope for the next summer. In fact, it is so popular; people are now stealing the actual M-22 Road Signs!
Recognizing the value of this Logo, the brothers Trademarked the familiar road sign to protect their initiative and investment in producing shirts, mugs, stickers and other items for sale. And now the State of Michigan has sued the M-22 Company, alleging it violated state and federal law in trademarking the symbol of the Northern Michigan Highway.
A trademark is a symbol or words registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, whereby a person or company protects the branding associated with the symbol or words. Imagine an apple with a bite from it, or a swoosh, or a golden arched “M.” We immediately recognize these symbols, associating them with Apple, Nike and McDonalds. And companies have the right to protect their investment in this branding by preventing other individuals from using the same or very similar logo.
So what is wrong with the company protecting their idea and trademarking this Logo? Entrepreneurs imagine an enterprising way to utilize a Highway sign, increasing employment and bringing tourism dollars to a local community. Why would the State care?
Because the State is claiming the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) states “Traffic control devices contained in this Manual shall not be protected by a patent, trademark or copyright.” To obtain federal funds for highway safety programs, each State must adopt the MUTCD as a state regulation—this was intended to create uniformity in road signs so a person can travel from Arizona to Wyoming and understand the signage. Each state may create a unique design, and Michigan chose to maintain the historic white diamond on a black sign with a block “M” over the number.
Since the “M-22” road sign is controlled by MUTCD, the company—according to the State of Michigan—cannot trademark it. Much like “Route 66” or the Statute of Liberty cannot be trademarked.
The trouble developed when another individual began selling merchandise with the Logo of “M-119” (in the familiar white diamond on a black square.) M-119 is another popular Lake Michigan highway in the Petoskey area with a scenic “Tunnel of Trees.” When the person began selling the M-119 Logos, the M-22 company sent a “cease-and-desist” letter, demanding the merchandise stop, since the logo was so similar to the M-22 Logo. M-119 applied for its own trademark and was denied, again because it was so similar to the M-22 Logo.
So does M-22 have a trademark on every single Michigan Highway road sign? In 2012, the Michigan Attorney General issued an opinion letter, stating M-22 cannot have a Trademark on the M-22 sign, because of the MUTCD’s statement on traffic control devices.
In August of 2016, the State of Michigan filed a complaint against M-22, stating the trademark is not valid, and not enforceable. To be clear, the company can continue to produce the shirts and mugs and stickers with the “M-22” Logo—it simply cannot prevent others from doing likewise. Nor could it prevent others from printing M-119 Logos, or M-24 Logos, or even make a shirt with a Stop sign.
Perhaps the lesson here should be to pick one’s battles. If the M-22 Company had allowed others to make a few cups or stickers with “M-119” then very likely nothing further would have happened. But by insisting it has rights to every single Michigan highway road sign, it is very possible to lose the exclusive use of “M-22” and its competitors can now print up products with the M-22 Logo.
It will be interesting to follow this matter and discover whether we can trademark Stop Signs!