Does A 'Don't Mess With The Internet' Billboard Violate Texas' Trademark?

from the use-in-commerce? dept

We recently covered a plan, hatched at SXSW, to crowdfund a billboard in Lamar Smith’s home district, with the statement “Don’t Mess With The Internet” on it — in response to Smith’s sponsorship of a series of anti-internet bills, most notably, SOPA. First the good news: the crowdfunding campaign reached its $15,000 goal, so it was funded.

However, it’s worth noting that the folks over at the Austinist blog have mocked the plan, insisting that it infringes on Texas’ trademark on “Don’t Mess With Texas” (also the Austinist article seems to go back and forth between trademark and copyright, not recognizing that the two are different). Texas’ Department of Transportation (DOT) holds a trademark on the phrase as part of its anti-littering efforts. I had actually thought about this earlier, as we’ve written about how the state of Texas has been overly aggressive with the trademark, such as going after book authors who have used the title.

Of course, there’s a big problem here if Texas does decide to challenge this particular billboard: trademark law covers use in commerce. The billboard in question is not selling anything, is not used in commerce and is pretty clearly protected political speech. The Austinist blog seems to assume, incorrectly, that a trademark is a blanket rule that blocks any such use by anyone ever. That’s wrong. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Texas still complain and maybe even file a lawsuit, but I can’t see how it has any chance of winning at all. In fact, if it did go down that path, the state of Texas might quickly learn that you “don’t mess with the internet.”

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Comments on “Does A 'Don't Mess With The Internet' Billboard Violate Texas' Trademark?”

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MrWilson says:

I’m pretty sure “don’t mess with Texas” was genericized before it even became a trademark.

How many people had said, “don’t mess with me!” before Texas adopted the phrase?

How many people had said the exact phrase, “don’t mess with Texas” before Texas adopted the phrase?

Further, why do they imagine that they own a trademark on “don’t mess with…” instead of the full phrase?

It’s silly for states to be granted trademarks anyway. The state isn’t involved in commerce with their litter campaign either!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Response to: MrWilson on Mar 16th, 2012 @ 3:29pm

The slogan with the campaign was created in 1985. There is legal precedent as they have sued people before that have used it and won. However those were cases that were clearly in commerce. Mike is right here. Futhermore, since this billboard is clearly parody for political commentary it also qualifies as fair use.

Mr. Smarta** (profile) says:

Do the math...

“Don’t Mess With Texas” contains 21 letters. If the word ‘Texas’ is removed, that changes approximately 24% of the slogan (removal). Adding the new phrase (12 letters) changes the slogan again with an approximate change of 57%. Combine those values and you have a mean delta of 33% total.


According to copyright law, the percentage of change required varies. In reference to Circular 14, Copyright Registration for Derivative Works, page 1 (, the document states that “Titles, short phrases, and formatting are not copyrightable.”(third paragraph, last sentence). So this is probably all moot anyway.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Derivative

I remember when the Scots version of the pound coin came out we all joked that the English version said stuffily (puts on best upper class accent “An ornament and a safeguard”, whilst the Scottish version said “d ni mess wi me”. That was the popular translation at the time (before Texas adopted it).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Response to: Ninja on Mar 17th, 2012 @ 10:42am

Yeah but since when has THAT basic common sense stopped anyone. Their usual tactic is to posture and threaten first to try to pressure the people to stop using it. For instance, they used that tactic to get the University of Texas in Austin to stop selling t-shirts with the slogan on it. I doubt that will work here though.

btr1701 says:

Re: Re: Response to: Ninja on Mar 17th, 2012 @ 10:42am

> For instance, they used that tactic to get the University of Texas
> in Austin to stop selling t-shirts with the slogan on it.

UT just got a taste of its own medicine, since they seem to think they own the letter ‘T’. They threatened to sue some kids who were selling t-shirts with nothing but a capital letter ‘T’ on the front and the university claimed it violated their IP and threatened to sue them.

What goes around comes around.

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