By on March 19, 2011

Now and then a story comes along that’s right in a writer’s wheelhouse. Yesterday, Chrysler filed a lawsuit in US District Court alleging that Pure Detroit, a small chain of gift shops specializing in Motor City memorabilia, was infringing on their trademark “Imported From Detroit” tagline, popularized in Chrysler’s Super Bowl ad starring rapper Eminem. Pure Detroit started selling their version of the shirts on Feb. 7th, the day after the Super Bowl, followed by Chrysler’s own shirts a few days later, which sold out in short order. Chrysler is donating the profits from those sales to Detroit area charities, and the company says that it tried to work out a similar arrangement with Pure Detroit. Pure Detroit did agree to stop online sales, but they continued to sell the shirts in their retail stores, resulting in the lawsuit. Courts have been pretty consistent that owners of intellectual property have to diligently defend it. According to a leading intellectual property attorney, in this case the courts should side with the Auburn Hills automaker, not the small stores in downtown Detroit.

This story has some personal resonance. In real life, I run a one-man embroidery shop called Autothreads. Logo t-shirts are part of my business. When you do embroidery, you run into intellectual property issues all the time. I frequently get asked to reproduce logos and trademarks that I don’t have the legal right to sell. In addition, I hold trademarks on some names and phrases and hold copyrights to my original embroidery designs.

I’ve also been on the receiving end of a cease and desist letter from Chrysler’s licensing management company over an intellectual property matter. Chrysler claimed that the apparel that I sold with my original artwork of PT Cruisers violated their copyright to the car’s exterior design. That’s an example of how powerful and wealthy owners of IP will try to expand their IP rights beyond the letter of the law by trying to intimidate people who are not illegally infringing. They say they are only being duly diligent but the net result is a de facto enlargement of their property rights.

So, if anything, I have sympathies for Pure Detroit. So does Ron Coleman, who heads the intellectual property department at Goetz Fitzpatrick LLP, a law firm based in New York City. Coleman muses on the topic of IP at his witty and entertaining Likelihood Of Confusion blog, and he graciously gave TTAC a few minutes of his time.

Coleman agreed that owners of IP trying to assert rights they don’t legally have is a problem, particularly because it’s usually a David and Goliath story, and the Davids usually don’t know much about IP. They’ll typically cave rather than face the expense of litigation. Because the little guy often has the letter of the law on his or her side, Coleman’s inclination is to favor the defendants, but in this case he thinks Goliath is going to “roll over [Pure Detroit] like a steamroller.”

Not so much because Chrysler already filed a trademark application for use of “Imported From Detroit” on clothing in January, before Pure Detroit started using the phrase in commerce on apparel. Coleman is skeptical of such trademarks, calling them a misuse of the trademark process, because “Imported From Detroit” is not a trademark for clothes, it’s a trademark for cars. Chrysler doesn’t need those additional trademarks because it already owns the phrase.

Many trademarks hinge on the concept of secondary meaning. Anyone can talk the truth about cars (unless you write for the Detroit News, apparently), but The Truth About Cars has established a secondary meaning to that phrase associated with TTAC’s business. Though Coleman has reservations about supplemental accessory trademarks for a phrase that already has secondary meaning, he believes that all of the secondary meaning of Imported From Detroit already “belongs to Chrysler”. “Chrysler has a pretty good case”, Coleman concluded.

Which brings up another question. Chrysler’s initial Imported From Detroit shirts used a graphic that was a stylized winged Chrysler logo. Since then, they’ve come up with a more in-your-face graphic that incorporates the the wings with an image of a fist, apparently modeled after the statue of boxing great Joe Lewis’ forearm in Detroit’s Hart Plaza. I do embroidery work for a number of motorcycle, car and social clubs. When the Cruel Intentions club asked me to design a logo with a white and and a black hand doing a fist bump, I used images of the Joe Lewis fist. Will Chrysler start claiming that the fist now has secondary meaning associated with Chrysler?

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13 Comments on “Chrysler Sues Over “Imported From Detroit” T-Shirts & They’ll Probably Win Too...”

  • avatar

    Chrysler. They actually should be glad that someone  is copying from them.The fist probably does not have a secondary meaning with Chrysler but the middle finger sure does.

  • avatar

    “… They’ll Probably Win Too”
    That’s because they are right and Pure Detroit is wrong.
    From Autoblog:
    “A company called Pure Detroit has started selling clothing with the tagline, while also claiming to be an exclusive clothing provider for the automaker.

    Chrysler is not exactly thrilled with Pure Detroit, but according to The Detroit News, it initially attempted to solve the matter away from the court system. It asked Pure Detroit to stop using the phrase, and to send a portion of any proceeds received to charity. Pure Detroit has evidently decided to give Chrysler a Bronx Salute, leaving the automaker with no choice but to make this an official legal matter.”

    “Will Chrysler start claiming that the fist now has secondary meaning associated with Chrysler?”
    Are you serious?

    • 0 avatar
      TM Attorney

      windswords whose name appears on your paycheck?  As Mr. Schreiber points out, the Detroit News is not a trustworthy source on this subject.  Chrysler is as ultra-aggressive as I’ve seen when it comes to suing anyone for any reason.  they sued a kids soccer team for using the Ram logo!  I’m sure that all they had to do was ask nicely and be reasonable and they would have changed.  Chrysler has the absolutely worst PR people I’ve every witnessed.
      Hey isn’t Chrysler majority owned by the  US government and also by Fiat?  Why is Chrysler spending OUR money on suing PURE DETROIT for this BS?

  • avatar

    Mr. Coleman must work for Chrysler. Chrysler chose words that are not protectable under trademark law. BIG mistake on their part. There is not one singe trademark precedent that grants protection for the words that Chrysler is trying to claim. There are more than 100 trademark precedents that support the direct opposite. Chrysler won’t have a prayer when this one goes to court. Pure Detroit should continue to stand up for it’s rights.

    • 0 avatar

      Mr. Coleman doesn’t work for Chrysler. As explained in the article, he heads the intellectual property department of a New York City area law firm. If you follow the links in the story you can find the names of Chrysler’s lawyers.
      Ron Coleman is a nice guy who publishes a blog in IP that I enjoy. When I told our esteemed ed Ed about it, he asked me to check with a trademark attorney. Ron and I had exchanged emails on an unrelated subject and I thought of him. He graciously took the time as a completely disinterested expert to tell TTAC’s readers how he saw the case.
      In exchange for that kindness, you have implied that he’s on the take from Chrysler.  Have you no decency sir? You could have simply said he was wrong and provided links to cases proving so, but instead you make grandiose claims and personal attacks.
      You’ve never commented before at this site, and it appears that you registered simply to attack Mr. Coleman and endorse Pure Detroit’s claims.  I’d say that if anyone is likely to have some kind of ties to one of the litigant, it’s more likely to be you than me or Mr. Coleman.
      Are you an attorney? Can you provide some of those trademark precedents? One?
      Ron and I are both sympathetic to Pure Detroit. I initially thought they had a case but discovered Chrysler indeed registered the mark for clothing before Pure Detroit started selling their own shirts. Coleman is one of the country’s experts on IP law, he went to Princeton for undergrad and Northwestern’s law school and has been in practice for almost 30 years representing companies, including some big ones. I’ll take his opinion over the word of an anonymous internet shill any day.

    • 0 avatar

      Chrysler trademarked the phrase before it was ever shown in public.  I’m no attorney, but seems to me that this will be a slam dunk for Chrysler.

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      Truthhurts2 has it wrong. There is nothing about any word or group of words which makes them ineligible for trademarking. “Where do you want to go today” and “It’s everywhere you want to be” are both legal trademarks in the context of computers for the first (Microsoft) and credit cards for the later (Visa).

    • 0 avatar
      TM Attorney

      TH2 – the personal attack is wrong but the rest of what you say seems right. I am a TM Attorney and I am following this case because I believe Chrysler should lose on the merits if PURE DETROIT can hold in there – see Bertel Schmit’s comment below.  I did some looking at the US trademark office TESS search system and PURE DETROIT has some support (  If you search “IMPORTED FROM PHILADELPHIA” you will find it was rejected and so was IMPORTED DAILY FROM CANADA along with most all other similar marks. Labatt brewing has a lot of money like Chrysler but they lost at the US Trademark Office.  Mr. Coleman seems to make this similar indication but for another reason – he seems to fail to consider the fact that Chrysler chose to use an unprotectable expression.  Either way, I don’t buy Chrysler’s claim they tried to reasonably settle the case.  Chrysler’s actions and statements in the Complaint all are quite vitriolic in my view.  To me, it seems Chrysler knows they have some potential risk of losing and are trying to pound PURE DETROIT before they can respond – an preliminary injunction must be coming soon.

    • 0 avatar
      TM Attorney

      Guys, all Chrysler did was submit an application and pay the fee to the TM office.  The TM office will accept ANY application if the fee is paid.  So what if Chrysler FILED for the application.  How many of you ultra pro Chrysler supports are associated with Chrysler?  You all seem to be using their party lines from their blog and complaint.  Pretty poor Chrysler feels the need to have its folks seed its info in the Comments to articles on the subject.

    • 0 avatar

      Mr Schreiber, perhaps I should have framed the statement more delicately. My apologies for not doing so. However, the spirit of the statement is legitimate, as it has been found that other seemingly impartial trademark attorneys commenting in the media on this topic turned out to have Chrysler as a client. Mr. Coleman’s hard-handed “steamroller” comment raised that question immediately in my mind — Leading me to log in and comment for the first time, as I have been following this story closely. I would still be interested to know if Mr. Coleman’s firm has Chrysler as one of their clients. Overall though, I have always enjoyed what I read on TTAC.

  • avatar

    As a very wise and very good trademark attorney once told me: “Bertel, I know you are right. You’ll win this case. After you have paid me for 5 years … if your business is still alive by then.”

  • avatar

    Thanks, Ronnie.
    I don’t usually bother responding to anonymous losers on the Internet, and I’ve usually regretted it when I have.  But you were nice enough to stick up for me so, by way of elucidation — yes, I’ve written quite a bit about the idea that not every catchphrase is a trademark, such as here, here and here.  My general take, in fact, is that slogans most aren’t trademarks.
    The one in this story probably is one, though, even if it’s not a very strong one.  More significantly, the way the t-shirt company went about trying to use the phrase suggests that, unlike in the typical case I write about, they meant quite specifically to refer to the fame or secondary meaning developed by Chrysler in its commercial.

    • 0 avatar
      TM Attorney

      Mr. Coleman:  How can you make that statement when a review of the US Trademark Office records makes clear they believe “IMPORTED FROM” can  never be protected when combined with a geographic location?  Chrysler’s execs themselves initially made clear that they wanted the IMPORTED FROM DETROIT phrase to go viral.  There was an article in the Detroit News on Tuesday February 8th regarding with a quote from Melissa Garlick (Head of the Chrysler Brand Advertising) that had her saying “we are not behind that [selling of tshirts], we’re flattered though, it’s a great compliment”. Of course, that is no longer on the Detroit News website but Mr. Schreiber already noted how that one goes, right!?!5782691/how-the-detroit-news-sold-its-soul.
      So, what happened to, a good catchphrase should be its own reward? (i’m paraphrasing here but this is what your articles make clear is generally your position. So why the change of heart for Chrysler here?

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