We are surrounded by road signs. They are on our way to work. They are next to our front yards. They are everywhere. So are company logos. They are on TV. They are on our products. They are also everywhere.
But what happens when the line blurs between the two and company logos mimic road signs? This question is at the center of an unusual trademark dispute in Michigan.
Case Study: M22
A business called M22 sells a variety of consumer products, from frisbees to clothing. Most of their goods proudly display their logo which is a replica of the iconic M-22 highway sign. The M-22 highway is a scenic drive in northern Michigan. The company founders trademarked the logo in 2007. Their trademark went largely unnoticed until M22 accused the Good General Hart Store of trademark infringement for its M-119 wine label. This prompted Michigan’s Attorney General to file lawsuit challenging M22’s trademark and claim that state highway signs are public domain.
The State of Michigan’s Argument
The state believes that the trademark violates both state and federal law since any trademarking of a highway’s road sign inherently makes that highway non-compliant with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Device. Further, Michigan’s Attorney General asserts that since the State “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.” In support of this argument, the Attorney General cites the US Supreme Court case of Dastar Corp. v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.
M22 accuses the Attorney General of misinterpreting Dastar. The company thinks that this case actually supports their trademark since they believe the court set precedent in Dastar for them “to take an image admittedly in the public domain and make it their own by selling goods under that symbol and obtaining trademark rights in that symbol through its use.”
M22 also notes that signs are frequently incorporated into registered trademarks. They point out that the United States Patent and Trademark Office has a specific design code for signs. M22 cites several trademarks that incorporate formerly public domain works including US-1.
At present, the case continues to be litigated and both sides have yet to show any “signs” of backing down.