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M22/Michigan Road Sign Dispute: The Saga Continues

Posted in Branding, Mixed Bag of Nuts, Trademarks

My first post on this blog, nearly two years ago, was about a trademark dispute between the State of Michigan, and a Michigan company, M22, LLC.  M22 sells a variety of merchandise bearing an “M22” mark that appears similar to the route marker signs on Michigan Highway M-22, see photos below.

U.S. Registration No. 3992159

Posted to Flickr by Larry Page. License: CC BY 2.0.

M22 was granted several federal trademark registrations, including an “M22” word mark and several M22 design marks. The dispute escalated began back in 2013, when Michigan filed a petition for cancellation at the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) on several grounds, including that the registration violates federal regulations related to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTDC) (among several other grounds which are now less relevant). In August 2016, the TTAB denied Michigan’s motion for summary judgment.

Shortly after the TTAB denied summary judgment, Michigan turned to a different venue, filing a lawsuit in Michigan state court (ultimately resulting in suspension of the TTAB proceeding), against M22 seeking declaratory relief. M22 quickly removed the case to federal court. In its complaint, Michigan alleged that trademark protection for the M22 design in Michigan’s M-22 route marker signs is prohibited based on Federal Highway Administration standards under MUTCD, which provide that any road signage designs (“traffic control devices”) required on federally funded highways, including the M-22 signs, are in the public domain and shall not be protected by patent, trademark, or copyright.

However, last year, the federal court issued an opinion in favor of M22, dismissing the case for lack of jurisdiction. The court held that it lacked jurisdiction over Michigan’s claim for declaratory relief. Furthermore, the court held that Michigan lacked standing as there was no concrete injury alleged. Michigan’s main argument as to concrete injury was that Michigan risks losing federal highway funding if it does not comply with and enforce state and federal laws and regulations, including the MUTCD. The court disagreed, determining Michigan had not alleged facts showing how the registration of M22’s marks would prevent Michigan from complying with the MUTCD, that there was any risk of losing federal funding, or that Michigan has any power to enforce the MUTCD against private third parties.

But Michigan still didn’t give up after losing the federal court ruling. The case was remanded back to state court, where extensive motion practice ensued. The state court ultimately concluded that: (1) Michigan has standing; (2) the MUTCD has the force and effect of Michigan law; (3) M22 LLC is subject to Michigan law; and (4) the M-22 highway sign is a traffic control device under the MUTCD. However, the court declined to determine whether M22’s trademark registrations and use were unlawful under the MUTCD (as Michigan argued), and held the TTAB may lift its stay.

So now the dispute is right back where it started over five years ago, in the trademark cancellation proceeding at the TTAB.  The TTAB lifted its stay last year, and recently granted an extension of discovery to allow M22 to take a deposition of a designee for Michigan. Most recently–just yesterday in fact–Michigan moved again for leave to file a partial summary judgment motion, on Michigan’s claim that M22’s registration should be cancelled for unlawful use in commerce, based on violations of the MUTCD standards. However, the Board had already ruled twice that Michigan was prohibited from filing further motions for summary judgment. Today, M22 filed a request for a telephone conference with the Interlocutory Attorney, stating that briefing on Michigan’s third motion for summary judgment should be unnecessary based on the Board twice prohibiting such a motion.

This has been an interesting saga so far, and it’s fascinating that Michigan has been willing to invest so much time and money vigorously contesting this registration, when it is unclear (as it was to the Michigan federal court) whether there is a significant risk of any concrete injury to Michigan in allowing this mark to remain registered. How do you think this dispute will end up? Stay tuned for updates.