Steez and Desist – The Teeshirt Tug-of-War

I-Heart-UPIn today’s digital world, the craze of sharing viral content can roll a foggy haze over media ownership. Social media is a double edged sword for modern artists. Musicians, photographers, and graphic designers alike use it as an essential promotional tool, but hesitantly walk a tight rope of trust – it’s a delicate balance between marketing art and exposing it to an environment that festers authorship confusion, copy-catting, and sometimes blatant theft. From the moment an image is first tweeted, liked, embedded, or shared, losing its intellectual property is a constant risk.

Yesterday, followers of two Upper Peninsula themed Facebook pages, witnessed a prime example of this chaotic confusion, and participated in social media frenzy that nearly birthed a new rivalry! In a very public display of less than cordial veracity, the community fan page “I Love Upper Michigan” announced to its followers that their popular tee-shirt design was forcibly discontinued. Another U.P. themed tee-shirt design company claimed ownership to the print pattern, and took action to halt their presses.

The design under scrutiny, this:


Recognize it?

The “I Love Upper Peninsula” Facebook page is managed by Jason Asselin of Kingsford, MI. Asselin says he was appalled to learn about a cease and desist filed with the company that prints his tee-shirts, In an e-mail Teespring informed Asselin of the issue, ending his sale-campaign.

“We’ve had to remove your “I Love Upper Michigan!” campaign for the following reason: We received a cease and desist from in regards to your campaign containing copyrighted material. We do everything we can to protect our campaign owners, but when we do receive valid infringement reports we are required to act.” – Team Teespring

Yooper Steez founder and owner Justin Sailor of Baraga, MI says he discovered his design promoted on social media last Saturday and acted quickly to contest it with Teespring. Using the recommended procedures published by the website, Sailor was successfully able to remove the unauthorized self-trademarked material. Therein, he sparked a barrage of backlash after Asselin delivered the news to his fellow page-followers of “I Love Upper Michigan”. Disheartened to hear a larger company was allegedly claiming ‘ownership’ to the U.P., comments toward Yooper Steez were filled with mild mockery and sarcastic jest.

Through Facebook, and linking “I Love Upper Michigan” followers to his page, Asselin says in three days he sold 21 tee shirts before the campaign was disrupted; purchases Asselin promises to his Facebook patrons he will fulfill and deliver. Since TeeSpring’s discontinuation of the campaign, “I Love Upper Michigan” created a new design to promote and sell.

Here’s the new design:

Jason Asselin says changing his design wasn’t what struck a nerve, it was the approach by Yooper Steez that fueled his unfettered public inquisition. “Instead of contacting this page with any concern of the shirt I was offering, they “reportedly” sent a cease and desist to the online company I was using… Nowhere on the Yooper Steez website do I see any shirt like I was selling. I didn’t think I needed permission to get people to show their love for the UP,” said Asselin.

Justin Sailor of Yooper Steez explained that when he discovered that an identical version of his tee shirt was being sold without his consent, he wanted to act quickly in protecting it, in order to find a resolution before a Valentine’s Day promotion, where the design would be heavily promoted. Sailor says he was surprised with TeeSpring’s immediate response. Yooper Steez offered the following screenshots, links dating back to 2008, and Photoshop documentation to validate their claim.

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When comments from followers of “I Love Upper Michigan” began to escalate, Asselin says he was offered an olive branch by Yooper Steez for a mutually beneficial co-promotion.


Both administrators, Asselin and Sailor recognize a shared, mutual appreciation for the Upper Peninsula and want to promote similar expressions of U.P. pride. Unfortunately, conflict arose with their commercial endeavors. Steez’s owner says there was no malice in his intent, and rejects the accusation of Goliath-like tactics. “I am a small business. The perception that we’re larger than we are isn’t always to our benefit. I work Yooper Steez out of my living room, in my free time. I have a day job. It’s frustrating I was characterized as the villain here,” said Justin.

Justin Sailor says the cease and desist order wasn’t a legal document sent by Yooper Steez, as insinuated by I Love Upper Michigan, but rather an internal term used by TeeSpring. Sailor followed instructions after reading the website’s FAQ page, and submitted an inquiry about the design. His documentation seemed to be more than sufficient to convince Asselin’s printer to halt the campaign.

“I was hoping to make a little money on these shirts, I didn’t know someone could put a copyright on this design,” said I Love Upper Michigan page owner Jason Asselin.

The collision of popular designs that represent similar iconic images like the “I Love U.P.” logo isn’t a new tiff. The risks of duplicating or confusing regionally themed designs increase with the sprout of each new organization, and it seems graphic tee-shirt companies sporting locally designed threads are on the rise.

Jeremy Symons, is arguably the undisputed local mogul amongst these commercial based design and print companies. Owner of Yooper Shirts in Ishpeming, MI, he’s more than a local expert screen printer or a graphic designer, Symons is the creative powerhouse behind the entire company. He keeps ahead of his competitors by offering numerous, uniquely creative custom prints. By design, offering a variety of different styles targeted to a vast array of Yoopers, he inherently keeps out of conflict like this. It’s a trend Yooper Steez is seemingly adopting, prepping for their holiday promotion this upcoming Valentine’s Day. Ironically, protecting that one image in an attempt to expand their design repertoire caused a social media hoopla centered around one single design.

Staying innovative by using U.P. themes as a core value and not as a core image, Yooper Shirts is paving the way in how these companies show off Yooper pride. Tee-shirts are less of a logo-stamped marketing product, and more of an artistic canvas, displaying ever changing kaleidoscope of seasonal, trending, and traditional U.P. graphics. Although he says he admires Yooper Steez commitment to simplicity, Jeremy Symons offered some veteran insight on the situation by noting the design in contention is really an imitation of a pop-culture iconic logo from New York City. Designed by graphic designer Milton Glaser in 1977, “I ❤ …” can be found wherever tourists gather. It’s actually a registered trademark of New York. The state has tried to uphold its trademark by filing nearly 3,000 objections against imitators.

Each organization claims cause for frustration. Yet, the root of their frustrations is in the fuzzy, ill-defined legal precedent of internet intellectual property rights. User friendly online printing companies, and universally accessibly eCommerce websites are creating entrepreneurs all over the country. Creativity and digital media puts business opportunities at the fingertips of many, and free social media marketing can spark up custom apparel companies overnight. Protecting general images on the internet is nearly impossible today. Facebook is to graphics in 2014 what Napster was to music in 2001 – Sharing, replicating, copying, duplicating, editing, and inspiring each other through still-imagery and graphics is common, often welcomed. Until protecting and properly crediting digital media becomes ignored and overlooked by competing entrepreneurs.