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“Don’t Mess with Texas” means just get a lawyer for anyone trying to earn a buck off a slogan intended to promote tidy roadsides. The popular catchphrase has appeared on dozens of items — everything from T-shirts and bumper stickers to breath mint tins and refrigerator magnets. Now, the Texas Department of Transportation wants it back. “The state of Texas has a lot of money invested in the slogan, and we definitely want people to know it’s a litter prevention message, it’s not a macho message,” said Doris Howdeshell, director of the department’s travel division. The department has sent 23 cease-and-desist letters in the past year warning merchandisers against unauthorized use of the federally registered trademark. While the department hasn’t pursued lawsuits yet, the Texas attorney general’s office is reviewing cases in which merchandisers have refused to comply, said Jennifer Soldano, a lawyer with the Department of Transportation. “Don’t Mess with Texas” was created by an Austin advertising firm in 1986 and made its television premiere during the Jan. 1, 1987, Cotton Bowl game. The campaign created a buzz, with high-profile Texans like country singer Willie Nelson and boxer George Foreman delivering no-nonsense warnings to litterbugs. As the slogan grew more popular, the Transportation Department decided in October 2000 to register it as a trademark and recently stepped up enforcement to protect it. The action may be too little, too late, said Kae McLaughlin, executive director of the Austin-based Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, which was asked to stop selling “Don’t Mess With Texas Women” T-shirts. “It’s such a commonly used phrase that it’s rather absurd to think they’re going to be able to corral this back in,” said McLaughlin, whose organization and allied groups sold about 200 shirts for an abortion-rights march on Washington. “We believe we are using it properly, and our attorney is preparing a response,” she said. “We are also curious why they are coming after a small public interest group like ours.” If the department took McLaughlin’s group to court for trademark infringement, the agency would probably have a difficult time showing that consumers were confusing the abortion-rights T-shirts with its anti-litter campaign, Dallas trademark and patent lawyer Ted Stevenson said. However, the state could go a different legal route, claiming its message is being diluted by the slogan’s unauthorized uses, he said. Delaware-based MBNA Bank, which issues “Don’t Mess with Texas” Visa and Mastercard credit cards, also received a cease-and-desist warning. The state claims the bank failed to honor an agreement with the department and lied about the department endorsing the cards. The company agreed in 1994 to drop a trademark application for the slogan and to make periodic contributions to the state’s anti-litter campaign in exchange for permission to issue the cards. MBNA spokesman Jim Donahue said the company has not violated the deal. The University of Texas stopped selling Longhorns T-shirts bearing the phrase after it was contacted by the department. The university aggressively pursues protection of its own trademarks, like the Longhorn silhouette, and understands the importance of branding, said Craig R. Westemeier, director of UT’s Office of Trademark Licensing. Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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