Can you own an area code? That's the question that sparked a heated debate this week in the world of local T-shirts, and it revolves around whether or not one T-shirt designer can stop other companies from screening Milwaukee’s "414" area code on their clothing.
Fred Gillich, the owner of Too Much Metal and 414 Milwaukee, started his 414 brand in 2012. His stylized version of the area code appears on T-shirts, hats, glassware and flags – one of which hung from City Hall last spring.
Beard MKE, a local retail company, partnered with Cream City Print Lounge, also Milwaukee-based, to create a "414 All" shirt to benefit the Cream City Foundation that works to protect the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.
Gillich sent Beard MKE a cease and desist letter earlier this month, and was not satisfied with the company’s response. And so he went to social media and made a post calling out Beard MKE for using the 414 area code on a shirt with the image below.
Many responded to this post negatively, criticizing Gillich for public shaming via social media and for having a history of being unsupportive of other local businesses. Plus, the shirts were created to be worn during Black Lives Matter peaceful protesting and the proceeds donated to charity.
"Fred Gillich wants to fill his own pockets, so he doesn’t allow anyone else to use 414 in any way, even when it’s to support BLM and LGBTQ groups," says Mo Crosby, a business owner and events coordinator who started a petition to allow other companies to use Milwaukee’s area code on clothing.
Gillich did obtain a federal trademark registration that states "414" cannot appear on any articles of clothing other than his brand.
Aaron Olejniczak, attorney and partner at Andrus Intellectual Property Law LLP, confirmed that the trademark is legit and that Gillich does have a right to legally challenge other businesses that use "414" in any font or style on their clothing.
"He can’t go after someone for naming their restaurant ‘414’ but he can with other clothing brands," says Olejniczak.
But the issue is more than the legality of whether or not Gillich "owns" the numbers 414. For some, it becomes an ethical question about being a local business that’s supportive of other local businesses.
"This is not the first time he’s done this to a small business and no one has the time or the money for legal support," says Crosby.
Gillich says he just wants companies to partner with him rather than use the trademarked 414 without permission.
"I survive on my creativity and when I see it being appropriated, the question becomes who’s hurting whose small business?" says Gillich. "I am protecting my livelihood."
Crosby says she is speaking on behalf of numerous small businesses that have been hesitant to challenge Gillich in fear of having legal action taken against them.
"I have nothing to gain here. I’ve worked with both of these businesses, but whether it’s legal or not, I think what (Gillich) is doing just isn’t right," says Crosby.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.