Donna Mcwilliam  /  AP
A sign with the "Don't Mess with Texas" slogan is shown along Interstate 35 near Gainesville, Texas. In the last year, the state Department of Transportation has sent out 23 cease-and-desist letters for unauthorized marketing of the federally registered slogan.
updated 6/6/2004 7:49:41 PM ET 2004-06-06T23:49:41

"Don't Mess with Texas" -- and get a lawyer for anyone trying to earn a buck off the slogan.

The popular catchphrase intended to promote tidy roadsides has appeared on everything from T-shirts and bumper stickers to breath mint tins and refrigerator magnets. Now, the state Transportation Department 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.

In the past year, the agency has sent 23 cease-and-desist letters warning merchandisers against unauthorized use of the federally registered trademark.

While no one has been sued, the Texas attorney general's office is reviewing cases in which merchandisers have refused to comply, said Jennifer Soldano, a Transportation Department lawyer.

But the action may be too little, too late, said Kae McLaughlin of the Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, which has been asked to stop selling its "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," McLaughlin said.

The slogan was created by an Austin advertising firm in 1986, and made its television premiere during the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1987. The anti-litter campaign created a buzz, with high profile Texans like country singer Willie Nelson and boxer George Foreman.

The Transportation Department only recently stepped up enforcement to protect its trademark, registered in 2000.

Trademark and patent lawyer Ted Stevenson said the department would have a difficult time showing that consumers were confusing the abortion-rights T-shirts with its anti-litter campaign. However, the state could claim its message is being diluted by the slogan's unauthorized uses.

The University of Texas agreed to stop selling T-shirts bearing the catchy phrase after it was contacted by the Transportation Department.

"We're cooperating with them in terms of appropriately protecting their mark, just as we would want another entity to help protect us," said Craig R. Westemeier, director of UT's Office of Trademark Licensing.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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