For anyone who watched this year’s Super Bowl, you couldn’t help but be mesmerized by Chrysler’s new “Imported from Detroit” campaign, featuring Eminem, for the Chrysler 200.  Now, consumers see the tagline on all Chrysler ads. However, Chrylser has yet to secure trademark protection for the phrase, and on Tuesday, Chrysler lost its motion in federal court to bar use of the phrase by clothier Pure Detroit on t-shirts. The federal judge denied Chrysler’s motion for an injunction because he ruled that the automaker failed to show irreparable harm or that the automaker was likely to win in its suit against the clothier.

Chrysler sued Pure Detroit in March after the clothier began selling t-shirts with the phrase “Imported from Detroit.” Pure Detroit counter-sued, arguing that the phrase can’t be trademarked by Chrylser because it is geographically misdescriptive (phrases that indicate a product is from one geographic area when the product is actually from another are barred as trademarks). Pure Detroit argued that this was the case because Chrysler is based in Auburn Hills and the Chrysler 200 is assembled in Sterling Heights – not Detroit proper.

While the automaker filed three trademark applications with regard to use of the phrase, Pure Detroit has filed three letters of protest. This recent decision is certainly a ding in Chrysler’s quest for protection of the phrase, but it’s not over yet as the US Patent & Trademark Office has yet to render its decision on the phrase.

Seems like a fairly easy case to me. First, the mark is not geographically deceptively misdescriptive – I think a suburb of Detroit can still be considered Detroit for geographical purposes (Sterling Heights is about 27 miles north of downtown Detroit and Auburn Hills is 33 miles north of downtown). If you meet someone from Auburn Hills outside of Michigan and ask him where he is from, chances are he says “Detroit”.  Second, did anyone use the phrase “Imported from Detroit” before the Super Bowl ad campaign this year? Unlikely. Is Chrysler the first thing you think of when you hear the phrase now? Likely. I guess the only real point of contention here is when we look at the goods sold – Chrylser uses the phrase to sell cars; Pure Detroit uses the phrase to sell clothes. But, Chrysler has sold t-shirts as well. Is that enough to meet the likelihood of confusion requirement? I’m not sure. In this case it seems to me like Pure Detroit is simply trying to capitalize on Chrysler’s advertising agency’s winning tagline. Now we know trademark law isn’t intended to protect against this kind of behavior (simple stealing of phrases); it is intended to protect against consumer confusion. But here, I think one could certainly argue that Pure Detroit is capitalizing on Chryler’s image and misleading customers into thinking that the t-shirts have something to do with Chrysler. If that’s the case, trademark law exists to stop Pure Detroit.

More coverage at Autoweek & USA Today.

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