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M22: Highway Sign and Trademark

kathleen-mcdonald

Fickr photo courtesy of Kathleen McDonald

M22 is not just another pretty face. In fact, not only is it not a face, it isn’t particularly pretty, unless you think a plain black-and-white road sign with letter M and number 22 on a white diamond on a black background can be pretty. But it stands for all that is beautiful at the west edge of the Michigan mitten. And that designation and design, curiously enough, are private property — as you will discover if you try to sell a T-shirt imprinted with that logo.

For nearly a century M22 has designated a Michigan state highway of a little more than a hundred miles, connecting Manistee in the south to Traverse City in the north. There’s a federal highway, US 31, that connects the same cities in just 64 miles, but you don’t take M22 when you’re in a hurry. Unlike US 31, M22 keeps to the shores of the “big lake,” Lake Michigan, and goes up the Leelanau Peninsula, featuring Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and back down again past Suttons Bay and alongside Grand Traverse Bay. It’s about as scenic as you can get.

So what’s the deal with private property? How can you own the M22 sign as a trademark?

It turns out that all you have to do is use it and apply for trademark protection. “Use it” means you have something to sell that uses the mark. In the case of M22, it’s a retailer in Traverse City that sells not just T-shirts but pants, hats, cups, buttons, refrigerator magnets, Frisbees, kites, and bottle openers. And that makes the most of the association of M22 with scenic views and the outdoor life. “At the heart of everything we do is a desire to share passion for this insanely amazing place,” the retailer declares. The company donates 1 percent of sales toward the preservation of Michigan’s natural resources, winning a Business Donor of the Year award from the Leelanau Conservancy in 2015.

A trademark doesn’t prevent anyone from using the mark for other purposes. The state can still post M22 signs along the highway and print the logo on maps; people can talk and write freely about M22, and use the state’s official highway logo, without paying a fee or getting the company’s permission. Only if people want to sell shirts or refrigerator magnets in imitation of the company’s products will they get a cease-and-desist letter from the company’s lawyer.

Still, the notion of trademarking a public state-designated highway sign bothers some people. Twice in recent years the M22 mark has been challenged by competitors who wanted to use the logo on clothing. One wanted a trademark for M119, but the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected it because it was too similar to M22′s.

The Michigan attorney general then stepped in and supported the petitioner, issuing an opinion that, since M22 was in the public domain, it couldn’t be trademarked. His opinion, however, was just an opinion. It had no effect on the USPTO’s previous approval of M22′s use of the mark. As M22′s lawyer pointed out, even the word “MICHIGAN” is protected by trademark for clothing, the trademark belonging to the University of Michigan.

So if you want to wear a shirt with the M22 logo, you’ll have to buy it from M22. Meanwhile, the logo has become so popular that people are stealing the signs. To replace the missing ones, the state is now making signs for the M22 highway that omit the M, in hopes that people won’t be so interested in them as souvenirs.

 

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