Michigan trademark case questions who owns the road
Michigan's state highway 22 is the unlikely target of a simmering trademark battle.
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.