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Michigan trademark case questions who owns the road

Michigan's state highway 22 is the unlikely target of a simmering trademark battle.

The M-22 logo adorns apparel, mugs and stickers available at stores in the Leelanau Peninsula. The brothers behind the store are in a legal fight to protect the image of the highway sign, which they trademarked.

I can’t tell you how many miles I’ve traveled on M-22 in my lifetime -- maybe 100,000.  I took M-22 to and from the tiny village of Northport, where I went to school. In the summer we took it to my grandparents’ house to spend the day swimming and skiing on Lake Leelanau

Returning to Leelanau County as an adult, the childhood associations are the same, but the scores of new restaurants, vineyards, farmers markets and coffee shops are different.

“Leelanau County is supposed to be a secret, so I shouldn’t even be talking to you about this,” Pamela Cain told me as she was loading her children into a white minivan in the popular tourist town of Leland. I noticed the now-ubiquitous M-22 sticker clapped on the bumper.

“Yeah, he has a shirt and I have a sweatshirt; my mom has the sweatshirt; we have the stickers. It’s just a beautiful place to live, and to eat, and to work, and to raise a family,” she said.

M-22 runs 30 miles up one side of the Leelanau Peninsula and down the other -- it’s a beautiful drive.  And the simple black and white M-22 road sign that's emblazoned on bumpers, t-shirts and sweaters is the brainchild of the Myers brothers, Keegan and Matt, who secured a trademark for M-22 in 2007.  The brand was an instant success. 

“[Business has] doubled every year at least,” Matt Myers said. “So, whatever we did last year we’ve already done twice as much this year.”

What began as a simple logo for the brother’s kiteboard and surfing business quickly grew into a booming retail industry, promoting Leelanau County, Northern Michigan and summertime fun. It’s also become the flashpoint of a bitter trademark war over who owns rights to the plain old Michigan highway sign. Keegan Myers said the success of the company and simplicity of the concept has made them easy targets for copycats.

“In business you can’t move forward if you can’t protect what you’ve created,” says Keegan. "Nike does it."

His older brother Matt was more direct: “What happens is people come in here, they come in and look at the exact products we’re buying, exactly how we’ve embellished them, and they go and copy it."

To protect their brand, M-22 started sending cease-and-desist letters to companies with similar highway products, even those using featuring different roads such as M-119 about two hours north. With her mother, Ami Woods runs the Good Hart General Store in Good Hart, Michigan. Woods said they’ve sold souvenirs promoting M-119 for several decades, which is their right since M-119 runs right by their front door.

“All that we have is tourism as an industry,” Woods said.  “So, the possibility of a private business claiming a trademark that jeopardizes our right to promote tourism in our area is something that we felt very strongly that we needed to go against.”

Michigan’s Attorney General Bill Schuette seems to agree with her.  Schuette ruled earlier this year that all state road signs, including M-22, are public domain -- especially when it comes to tourism. As far as the Myers brothers are concerned, they plan to continue defending the trademark they’ve held for the past five years despite the AG’s ruling.

Whatever happens with the trademark, as long as tourists continue to pour into Leelanau County to swim, shop, eat or just drive down M-22, they will continue to buy the t-shirts.  Just like people like me will pine for summers past when the secret beaches were still a secret.

The M-22 logo adorns apparel, mugs and stickers available at stores in the Leelanau Peninsula. The brothers behind the store are in a legal fight to protect the image of the highway sign, which they trademarked.

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Yeah, South 12 was around for a while. Route 66 shirts and decals was probably one of the first in this country. The idea of taking a road sign and printing it on apparel and stickers is not new. But Matt and Keegan added culture around the symbol, which is rewarding to me growing up 100 yards off of the busy street myself. They made it easier to connect the idea of being somewhere and having the feeling that you'd rather not be anywhere else in the world in that moment.

Most everyone knows that feeling that has spent some time around northern Michigan. And for that, I am glad for Matt and Keegan and the culture they have attached to a simple local icon.

I have the "M-168 Ends" decal on all of our cars (shortest highway in Michigan). Where did I get it? Across Betsy Bay in Elberta at the Mayfair.

Just a little cooler than the M-22 thing.

As an entrepreneur I cant find fault in trying to make a living for yourself- What these guys have done downtown is great. They have a nice shop that attracts attention and frankly adds some cool to our already amazing area.

But - Threatening other small businesses for infringing upon something that they "made" is a total crock... It's for this reason you'll never see me wearing anything of theirs.

P.S. I actually live on M22.

The Trademark office is only concerned with documenting identities to prevent confusion for consumers. Clearly another symbol with an entirely different name, (as much as the graphic is based on the same State of Michigan Highway sign), presents no such confusion. I would love to see their paperwork. I doubt their trademark is enforceable given the prohibition for public symbols. If it stands, I would claim the Statue of Liberty. That all being said, I have a t-shirt and the sticker from their store in Traverse City (which is not even on M-22...)

Too bad this idea was thought of years ago already... South 12 at North Carolina's Outer Banks.. Plagiarism is the best form of flattery apparently. Up and down the eastern seaboard these stickers are prolific, and have been for years.

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