Last week, our post was about a cross-border trademark fight between a nearly monolithic beer brewer and one that has no presence beyond a small town in one U.S. state. This week, we take another plunge into the brewing world without the tongue-in-cheek tone of the last. That’s because of the iconic nature of the mark in question – Route 66.

Anyone of a certain age knows special associations go with that name. Once called the country’s “Mother Road,” it connected California and Chicago, passing through five other states along the way. It has been the subject of song and a 1960s TV show. Now it’s in the news because an international company claims it owns the trademark for Route 66 Beer and its logo-like “shield” design. The target of the claim is the Route 66 Junkyard Brewery in a small New Mexico town.

What’s in the law

The suit demands the New Mexico operation change its name, pay damages and turn over any brewery profits to the European plaintiff. Unless a settlement is reached, a trial is planned for next year.

The bar’s owner is putting up a fight. He offers up a few arguments for his side.

  • His bar is located on Route 66 and has a right to carry the location name
  • None of the beers he brews are called Route 66 Beer
  • Route 66 is iconic for Americans, and because the foreign company had nothing to do with that occurring, it should not be entitled to the trademark

Does he have a case? Can highway signs even be trademarked? Here’s what an online manual of the Federal Highway Administration says.

  • Any traffic control device design or application provision contained in this Manual shall be considered to be in the public domain. Traffic control devices contained in this Manual shall not be protected by a patent, trademark, or copyright, except for the Interstate Shield and any items owned by FHWA.

On that basis, some federal signs would seem to be controlled, in the manner of a trademark owner, by the U.S. Government, but many legal observers might agree that the effect is that the signs truly are in the public domain free for anyone to use as they see fit. So who, if anyone at all, owns Route 66?

Such questions are legitimate. To obtain answers about one’s trademark rights, consulting an experienced attorney is recommended.