2012-09-20 / Local News

Myers brothers grow tired of fielding M-22 inquiries

by Patti Brandt of the Enterprise staff


THE STATE Attorney General opines that commercial use of the M-22 sign should be open to all. THE STATE Attorney General opines that commercial use of the M-22 sign should be open to all. Keegan Myers is getting a little disheartened over all the fuss over whether he and his brother, Matthew Myers, have an exclusive right to use the M-22 highway logo, for which they have owned the trademark rights for more than five years.

The logo and trademark drew coverage earlier this month from the Wall Street Journal.

And in spite of a recent opinion from Attorney General Bill Schuette, the brothers stand by their right to be the only company in Michigan to use not just the M-22 sign, but all Michigan highway signs that are used in the same distinctive way their company has positioned it on t-shirts, hoodies, mugs and other products.

“We created new meaning for something that always existed,” Myers said. “There was not a T-shirt brand for the M-22 road sign before. We gave a simple road sign, created by MDOT for the purpose of providing navigational direction, an alternate meaning that didn’t exist before. We created a brand.”

Keegan Myers is well aware that the sign is in the public domain, as Schuette argued. But the Myers have taken that sign and turned it into a multi-million dollar business — one they say benefits people and the economy in both Leelanau County and in Grand Traverse County, where the brothers opened their first store in 2007.

The Myers actually own a total of five M-22 trademarks, including the name of their stores, a brand of wine and the M-22 Challenge event, all of which are registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

“We have invested the time, energy, and funds needed to create a quality brand - a brand that utilizes local resources, creates local jobs in our region, and promotes our state in a very positive way,” Myers said.

The company also donates 1 percent of every item it sells to the Leelanau Conservancy.

When others use the state highway logo and put it on a product — even if the actual number is different — it copies the business model created by his company, Myers said. And when people see it they may think another company’s product is one that is put out by them, he said.

“All we look for is if it creates customer confusion,” Myers said. “The litmus test is, are people thinking we created that shirt? Are they thinking we created that product?”

M-22 products — all of which are customized or printed locally — have a certain level of quality, he said.

“We can’t have people out there selling knock-offs printed in China,” he said. “This is our intellectual property and this is a legitimate way to protect that property through the federal government.”

The issue came to Schuette’s attention when Carolyn Sutherland, the owner of a store in Good Hart, sought the ruling on behalf of her souvenir shop, which has been using the M-119 sign on T-shirts for years and recently tried to sell a wine bearing the same logo. After hearing from the Myers and their attorney, Enrico Schaefer, Sutherland contacted her state representative, who contacted Schuette.

Schuette disagreed with the Myers claim to all state road signs, saying that all citizens have the right to use them, especially when it comes to promoting tourism in the state. He further said that all road-sign trademarks are improper.

But Myers argues that Schuette’s opinion is just that — an opinion. And that it carries no enforceable, legal weight. Since the brouhaha started Myers has met with people from the attorney general’s office.

“They didn’t understand the size of our business when they wrote the opinion and now they do,” Myers said.

Joy Yearout, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill Schuette, said members of Schuette’s office did meet with Myers in an effort to increase communication on the issue. But Schuette’s opinion hasn’t changed, she said.

“The attorney general’s opinion stands,” Yearout said. “His position is that state road signs belong to the people of Michigan and belong to the public domain and can’t be trademarked.”

Yearout said the position is backed up by state and federal law, as well as Supreme Court precedent. The opinion cites one 2003 case, Dastar Corp. v. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., in which the Supreme Court ruled that a corporation cannot use trademark law to perpetually protect a design that they did not create and is in the public domain. Schuette’s opinion states: “The fact that they have appropriated the design from the public domain and affixed it to merchandise offered for sale does not create a legitimate basis for trademark protection.”

Bill Dungjen, who lives on CR 616, recently created some stickers to promote his road using the county road sign.

“We’re sort of a tongue-in-cheek version of what they’re doing,” Dungjen said. “It was sort of a joke at first, but I later turned it into a booster for the corridor area.”

He was never contacted by the Myers’ attorney, he said.

But he thinks the attorney general should stay out of the matter.

“He’s got better things to do with his time,” Dungjen said.

Myers says his company has created 50 jobs in Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties and its products are sold in stores in every Leelanau County community. A second M-22 store opened in Glen Arbor in 2011 and has done very well, with overall sales for the company expected to top $2 million this year.

The Myers, who grew up on Old Mission Peninsula, created a line of T-shirts and stickers with the M-22 sign in 2003 that were marketed to local kiteboarders and surfers. A few years later Keegan Myers wore one of the shirts when he was photographed for a local magazine feature on their business, Broneah Kiteboarding. After the article ran, the business was flooded with calls from people wanting to know where they could get a shirt.

The Myers were soon producing and selling the T-shirt, as well as other M-22 apparel and products. They sought and got a trademark on the M-22 logo, which they have protected by sending out cease-and-desist letters to companies that use the M-22 sign. They later laid claim to anything that bore the state highway symbol — the white M inside the black square and white diamond — saying their trademark gives them exclusive rights to the design.

But Myers said it is not the use of the highway sign that his company objects to. It’s using it in exactly the same way his company has, by using the sign in the exact same size with placement of it in the center of the shirt.

“We would never stop anyone from using any ‘M’ logo road sign for any reason as long as they are not using it in the exact same way we have for the past seven years,” Myers said. “The M-22 sign is available to any business or person who wants to use it the same way they have since the road was established in 1919.”

Myers said that anyone who wants to spin off the M-22 brand by changing the numbers in the logo should protect that investment by using the U.S. Patent and Trademark office.

While at least 794 altered versions of road signs are registered trademarks, it is not known how many unchanged road signs like the M-22 sign are trademarked, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal. Myers said his company’s version of the M-22 has some minor modifi cations, but for all intents and purposes, looks just like the road sign.

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M22- protecting what we

M22- protecting what we love.

Seven years ago we had an idea - create a brand that represents the “way of life” here in Northern Michigan. This was best represented by the feeling we had every time we were on M22. With no expectations to be where we are at today, we created a brand and turned the M22 sign into a logo. We gave a simple road sign, created by MDOT for purpose of providing navigational direction, an alternate meaning that didn’t exist before. We created a brand. The black square with white diamond, M, and numbering was turned in to a representation of something other than navigational direction.

We understood that getting a brand going would take significant investment; therefore we first submitted our mark to the United States Patent and Trademark Office that regulates all trademarks. After thorough review, the Federal Government accepted our trademark request, and since then has helped protect our intellectual property. We have invested the time, energy, and funds needed to create a quality brand - a brand that utilizes local resources, creates local jobs in our region, promotes our state in a very positive way and donates 1% of every single item sold to the Leelanau Conservancy (largest land protector on M22).

We would never stop anyone from using any “M” logo road sign for any reason as long as they are not using it in the exact same way we have for the past seven years. The M22 sign is available to any business or person who wants to use it the same way they have since the road was established in 1919. Should you wish to spin off our brand by changing the numbers in the logo or something, we highly suggest protecting your investment by utilizing the USPTO to ensure that you can protect your concept long into the future.

We started this brand from nothing and with nothing but passion and hard work. We thank everyone that has ever supported us and helped build the M22 brand to the point it is today. We look forward to a long future of growing, innovating, and creating a brand that supports our region and this great state of Michigan!

Matt and Keegan Myers, M22 LLC founders.