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Traverse City — M-22 carves north over rolling hills and through picturesque towns, offering spectacular views of Lake Michigan and the Mitten State’s golden sunsets.

Beginning three miles north of Manistee, the state trunkline extends more than 116 miles as it passes through Benzie County into Leelanau County before ending at the base of Grand Traverse Bay in Traverse City.

It’s the kind of scenic highway that gets its own sticker, T-shirt, coffee mug and dog collar. So many people have swiped its M-22 signs, MDOT is replacing them with ones that simply read “22” in hopes they’ll be less appealing.

“People all over share our passion and lifestyle defined by M-22, which takes us through quaint villages and along the beaches of Lake Michigan,” said Matt Myers, who has built a multi-million-dollar apparel business, M-22 LLC, with his brother, Keegan. “Now we have a better way to explain why we live here. M-22 became a symbol.”

They soon found out, however, that using that symbol would bring them into a legal fight with the state government — a long-running dispute that’s expected to go to trial in a few months.

The brothers’ business started as a small kiteboarding store in Traverse City in 2003. It’s since grown into two stores, one in Traverse City and one in Glen Arbor, that sold more than $2 million in M-22 merchandise last year.

Along the way, M-22 LLC was eventually granted several federal trademark registrations, including the M-22 design.

Today, there are two stores with 14 full-time employees and two dozen part-timers. T-shirts, hoodies, water bottles, magnets and numerous other logo items are available.

“Our intention was not to make a living or start a business,” he said. “We were paying off college loans and trying to kiteboard as much as possible. So we sold some shirts out of the back of our van. We donated a portion of each sale to the Leelanau Conservancy; it seemed the right thing to do.”

But the Myers brothers’ success caught the attention of the state in 2012, when it sued the M-22 company, claiming use of the M-22 marker as a trademark violated federal and state laws.

“No entity can lawfully claim exclusive control over the use of state’s highway route marker design because the design is in the public domain and is otherwise not subject to protection under trademark law,” Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said in 2012.

M-22 LLC was accused of threatening to sue others, but not the state, over use of M-22, M-25, M-26, M-28, M-37 and M-119 in the diamond design for trademark infringement.

Matt Myers admits his company does not own the M-22 logo.

“As long as anyone doesn’t hurt our business or confuse our customers, anyone can use the logo,” he said. “We’re simply protecting our product.”

The state’s lawsuit has been litigated for years in front of the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board. The complaint was filed in Ingham County Circuit Court, then sent to U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids before being returned to Ingham County, where a judge last month declined to find that M-22’s trademarks violate a federal manual.

“After four years of the State of Michigan wasting taxpayer money on this case, we are looking forward to prevailing at trial, and we have no doubt that we will,” said Traverse City attorney John DiGiacomo, who represents M-22 LLC.

The state has argued the trademark of the logo would lead to loss of federal funding through the Federal Highway Administration because federal law “traffic control devices” should not be protected by a trademark or copyright.

But a federal court in April said the state failed to show risk of losing federal highway funding. It also found no such evidence of threats by the apparel company against others using the logo.

DiGiacomo said the trademark board already has rejected three motions for judgment in the state’s favor and ruled the state is prohibited from filing such motions pending an outcome in trial.

The dispute now returns to the trademark board and DiGiacomo said he expects the matter to head to trial in a few months.

“The state is desperate,” DiGiacomo wrote in a statement. “My clients have won every step of the way.”

Meanwhile, the Michigan Department of Transportation has had its own problems with the popularity of the M-22 logo: The signs along the highway keep getting stolen.

In the last four years, more than 100 M-22 signs have been taken, said MDOT spokesman James Lake. Each sign costs the state $325-$350 to replace.

“It’s a huge taxpayer investment if we have to go out to replace the signs,” he said.

Four years ago, the state began replacing signs without the “M,” simply using “22.”

The latest attempt to thwart thieves is a plastic pavement marking — large letters glued to the highway itself. The markings come in sheets, and cost about $125 each.

“They are supposed to last three years, but we are not sure of that with our Michigan winters,” Lake said. “At this point, we are just testing them in two locations in Benzie County.

“If they are not feasible, we’ll reconsider their use.”

John L. Russell is a photojournalist and writer living in Traverse City.

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