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Texas’ Littering Slogan not to be Messed With: They Sue Infringers
Intellectual property rights get messy when something as repeatable as a catch phrase, slogan, or proverb goes from being intellectual property to common property. This was the case of the anti-littering slogan, “Don’t mess with Texas,” which was coined in 1985 by Tim McClure when his advertising agency was hired by the state’s Transportation Department. The phrase nevertheless had resonance with Texan sense of swagger and braggadocio, and has been quoted far beyond an admonishment not to litter on the highways. For instance, George W. Bush used the phrase in his speech accepting the Republican nomination for president in 2000.
Federal Law grants politicians the right to use trademarked phrases in their speeches. Other borrowers of the phrase have not been so lucky. The Texas transportation officials have issued 100 complaints since 2000, sharply demanding a cease-and desist order for those who would use their slogan without permission and licensing.
For instance, last July a Montana company had to pull their “don’t Mess with Texas,” belt buckle when the Texas Department of Transportation threatened legal action, as the New York Times reported. The author of the romance, “Don’t mess with Texas,” also had trouble of her own, and after 9 months of legal scuffling, had to pay $2,500 and change the title to “Only in Texas.”
Even something as mundane and tedious as the state telling you not to litter can strike a chord of resonance, and become a popular saying. But merely because a phrase becomes popular doesn’t mean the populace owns it, and if you persist, Texas will sue. Don’t mess with “Don’t mess with Texas.”