How Can the Value of an On-Premise Sign Be Calculated?

Richard Bass is a certified appraiser in Sarasota, Florida. During his more than 30 years in business, he has testified in court as to how a sign’s value can be appraised. In a presentation for The Signage Foundation, bass outline three case histories where the absence of a sign could be measured economically. Planners, Signs and A Community’s Economic Well Being (Powerpoint) – Rick Bass

In a 1995 case in Decatur, Georgia, a Days Inn was allowed to use an electronic message center for four years that was actually situated on a third party’s property. Property ownership changes occurred, so a payment needed to be determined. Three approaches were used: comparable sales, income and cost.

For the “comparison” method, the sign was compared to a billboard, Based on outdoor-advertising prices, for the 49 months, the price was calculated to be approximately $1.6 million.

The “income” approach examines Days Inn’s income for the same time period: $8.4 million. The percentage of this attributable to the sign was calculated at 25%, which made it $2.1 million. Because half of the guests already had reservations (which meant the sign didn’t draw them in), the figure was reduced to $1.050 million. Adding a 10% for interest earned, the final figure became $1.2 million.

The “cost” approach considers how else the property could be used. based on 238 units, the value of each motel room was set at $31,765. If they were all converted to apartments, their value would be $25,000 each. The value difference, $6765, multiplied by 238, becomes approximately $1.6 million.  The full story, with detailed calculations, appeared in the April 1999 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.

What Does “Conspicuity” Mean for Signage?

Conspicuity for signage is determined by the contrast between the sign and its background. A sign must be conspicuous first, because, without it, the sign’s legibility and readability are moot points. While the appropriate size for signs is addressed on this website under the heading “How big should a sign’s letters be?”, conspicuity includes factors that only indirectly relate to size.

Anything that impedes the ability to detect a sign impacts its conspicuity: Trees, telephone poles, parked trucks and other signs are physical objects, and other factors include lack of illumination at night, driving west at sunset or east at sunup.

The two types of conspicuity are search and attention. Search conspicuity occurs when the motorist is actively looking for a gas station, food, lodging, etc. Attention conspicuity involves unexpectedly important signage, such as construction of “lanes closed ahead” signs. Generally, signs are three times more likely to be seen in search mode than attention mode.

“Cone of vision” is another major factor for conspicuity. The Southern California College of Optometry determined, for a motorist, their peripheral vision while still looking straight ahead while driving, is a maximum of 10 degrees left and right. Consequently, a sign’s distance from the road, called the “setback,” is absolutely critical in terms of conspicuity.

For example, at the same 10-degree viewing angle, a sign that’s 42 ft. from the road “disappears” from view when the driver is closer than 240 ft. If the sign is only 5 ft. from the road, at the same viewing angle, it remains in the driver’s sight until within 30 ft.

The Larson Institute of Penn State University, from 10 studies it has conducted between 1996 and 2010, has calculated a formula for determining when signs come into view in relation to setback:  L = D x 0.176, where L equals 10 degrees of “lateral offset” and D is the distance in feet of the sign at initial detection. Thus, if initial detection distance from the sign is 300 feet, 10 degrees of lateral offset would be 52 ft. Note that this offset is from the driver’s eye position, and not from some variable point. This is included in a 2015 publication called the United States Sign Council Best Practice Standards for On-Premise Signs. Go to http://www.ussc.org/pdf/USSCSignStandardsJune102015FINALEDITION.pdf

Similarly, Penn State has calculated how tall a sign should be, based on the distance from which it would be viewed. Using five degrees of vertical elevation, plus 3.5 ft. representing elevation of the average driver’s eye position above the road, a calculation of vertical sign-height limits, capable of providing comfortable detection over both long and short ranges, can be derived from the following equation:

H = D x .088 + 3.5, where H equals the sign-height minimum and D equals the distance in feet from the sign at initial detection. This is also included in the 2015 USSC publication.

Thus, if initial detection distance from the sign is 400 ft., the sign height must be at least 38.5 ft.

Signs that are perpendicular (facing) to the motorist, such as freestanding and projecting signs, are significantly more conspicuous than signs that are parallel to the road, such as fascia signs or letters attached to a building.

Penn State studied this phenomenon and found that 50-60% of the parallel signs weren’t even seen by motorists, even if they were three times bigger than corresponding perpendicular signs. Overall, perpendicular signs are generally four times more conspicuous than parallel signs.

Penn State has also calculated to what extent signs are blocked from view at specific distances, based on both the number of lanes of traffic, the amount of traffic and the sign’s setback. Numerous tables are included for the variables in the 2015 publication: which of the four lanes the motorist is in, the speed of travel, etc.

In a worst-case scenario, when a driver is in the curb lane of a four-lane highway, and the traffic flow is 1200 cars per hour, and the sign is 10 ft. off the road, a sign might be blocked from 77% of the drivers.

Do Wall Murals Improve Small Towns?

The Walldog Festival movement began 2.3 years ago when more than 100 signpainters descended upon Allerton, IA, on July 30- August 1, 1993. In addition to restoring an eight-year-old painted wall mural, they created seven other hand-painted murals. Currently, the vast majority of non-electric signs are created with computer-cut vinyl or digitally printed material.

Most recently, on June 24-28, 2015, the Walldogs traveled to Delavan, WI, a wintertime circus town, for a festival entitled The Greatest Walls on Earth. There, two colorful murals commemorated Delavan’s history. Over the past 22 years, the Walldog Movement has produced 520 murals in 28 towns via the efforts of 257 signpainters.

So what difference has this made for any of the towns?

Pontiac, IL was the site of the 2009 Walldog Festival (June 25-28), which resulted in 18 murals for a town with a late 1800s courthouse. In the aftermath, Mayor Bob Russell wrote:  “When I walked around on that Sunday evening at the end of the event, and looked at all the murals, I still couldn’t believe what I had just seen happen.  The many buildings that just a few months before were looking old and tired, now looked new and alive.  A long-time city resident came up to me and said, ‘This city hasn’t looked this good in 40 years’.  I agreed with him.  Since that weekend, thousands of local residents, and untold numbers of visitors from around the world, have been able to enjoy the beauty of the murals, as well as learn more about the history of Pontiac.  It is a pleasure to be downtown and see people strolling along the streets, taking pictures, or just enjoying everything that the murals have brought to our city.”

Dr. Robert Roarty, who works with the Pontiac Tourism Dept., wrote, in 2012, “Pontiac, like most small Midwestern towns, has continually struggled to maintain economic viability in its central business district.  The competition from regional malls, large discounters and internet commerce, combined with aging buildings that were built in the late 1800s, has resulted in the decline of the downtown Pontiac business district.  This ongoing situation was further exasperated in 2008, when, in January, the City of Pontiac experienced a major flood, which put additional economic stress on small businesses.  Shortly after the flood, Governor Blagojevich announced his intention to close the Pontiac Correctional Center, the City’s largest employer.  The prospect of losing 800 jobs, and the economic uncertainty the Governor’s plan engendered, froze the local economy.  Then, in September of 2008, the national [and international] economy suffered a major setback.  All of these events, in a short period of time, had a devastating effect on the small businesses which comprise Pontiac’s ‘Main Street’.

“The impact of the Murals on Main Street event was both immediate and long-lasting.  For the four days of the extended June weekend, the downtown business district was more alive than it had been in years.  Thousands of local citizens were joined by hundreds of out-of-town visitors as they watched and commented on the creation of the 18 new murals, the displays of the Art Dogs, and the events associated with the Hang Loose Car Show and Pontiac Heritage Days.

Many of the older buildings in the downtown business district were spruced up prior to the event with new paint, brickwork, and other improvements.  The net effect of this renovation is a marvelous and lasting change in the appearance of the city center area.

“The new murals have given the city’s tourism bureau an entirely new asset to promote. Visitors continue to come to Pontiac to marvel at the beauty of the new murals.  These 18 new murals not only add beauty to the city, but serve as highly visible reminders of Pontiac’s social, commercial, and political history.  Senior citizens, school groups, clubs and organizations from around the state have made our murals a popular attraction.  Route 66 heritage travelers, who come to visit the Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum, find so much more to see and do in the city that they frequently stay far longer than they originally anticipated.  These longer stays have resulted in increased economic activity for the entire Pontiac business community.

“Since the close of the 2009 Murals on Main Street event, the city has planned, organized, and opened a new museum dedicated to both the history of outdoor wall sign painting and the modern Walldogs.  The International Walldog Mural and Sign Art Museum preserves the legacy of the early advertising wall sign painters and provides a much needed context for the thorough appreciation of the Pontiac’s new wall murals.

“Pontiac’s impressive collection of murals is also directly responsible for the city gaining two new attractions.  In 2010, Tim Dye, an avid collector of Pontiac and Oakland automobiles, came to Pontiac to see our murals.  While exploring the city, he stuck up a conversation with the manager of the Walldog Museum about the town, the murals, and the city’s prospects for the future.  The result of that conversation, and many subsequent conversations, was Mr. Dye’s decision to open the Pontiac-Oakland Automobile Museum in Pontiac last year.  In a similar case, the International Society of Gilders learned about Pontiac through the internet and was impressed by our city’s collection of murals and the Walldog Museum.  Earlier this year, the Society decided to base its organization’s national museum here.

“In 2010, 2011, and so far in 2012, the number of tourists who visit Pontiac has increased dramatically.  The average annual increase hovers around 40% for each of the last three years.  The impact of the 2009 festival will continue to be felt by the citizens of Pontiac, and the many visitors who come here, for many years. ”

Jay Allen, a very active Walldog, observed, “Kewanee [Illinois, 2013] entered the Rand McNally ‘best town in America’ contest weeks after its mural project and won ‘Friendliest Community in America’. The murals were obviously a huge part of the swelling pride in the town . . . Belvidere [Ilinois, 1997] won the Illinois Arts Council’s ‘Governor’s Award for the Arts – Community’  and a Tourism Award for Creative Projects the same year.”

To read more about the Walldog Festival and the Walldog Movement, go to http://thewalldogs.com/

What has the Supreme Court Said about On-premise Signage?

Supreme Court cases that involve on-premise signage

The First Amendment

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The 14th Amendment

Section 1.

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

As far back as 1923, in Meyer v. Nebraska, SCOTUS ruled that the 14th Amendment protects the rights of citizens to, among myriad things, “acquire useful knowledge” and, based on Virginia Pharmacy, can’t restrict speech based on who the speaker is (“equal protection”).

Unquestionably, the Reed v. Gilbert Supreme Court (SCOTUS) case from July 2015 was the most important court case for the sign industry of the 21st Century (see related story). But several other SCOTUS cases have established sign-code standards still in effect today.

Time, Place and Manner

In 1976, SCOTUS ruled that pharmacies were allowed to announce their prices for drugs in Virginia State Board of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizen Consumer Council, Inc. Essentially, this case substantiated First Amendment freedom-of-speech protection for advertising messages. Most importantly, the case established the tent of “time, place and manner” for restricting the words on signs.

Virginia established that sign can’t arbitrarily restrict the time a sign can be displayed (“when”), place (“where”) or manner (“how”) a sign can be displayed. Any limitations on these three characteristics are permitted only if the restrictions are shown to be:

  • Justified without reference to the speech’s content
  • Serve a significant governmental interest, and
  • Allow ample alternatives for communicating the information.

Directly Advances, Narrowly Tailored

Four years later (1980), Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission further strengthened Virginia’s tenets by adding that any restrictions, to withstand a constitutional challenge, also had to

  • Directly advance the governmental interest, and
  • Be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.

Soon after Central Hudson, the SCOTUS case of Metromedia Inc. v. City of San Diego involved the allowance of on-premise signage, but the banning of off-premise outdoor advertising (billboards). Although five separate opinion emerged, a 6-3 vote declared the ordinance unconstitutional.

Advertising Bans
In 1996, in 44 Liquormart v. Rhode Island, the state tried to ban the advertising of liquor prices anywhere but at the actual stores. Essentially, SCOTUS upheld the right for merchants to advertise truthful, non-misleading commercial information. First Amendment protections superecede “vice” oriented restrictions.

The Fallacy of “Rational Basis Test” 
The above cases collectively negated the broad police powers that became known as the Rational Basis Test that followed Village of Euclid v. Amber Realty (1926). It basically allowed cities to enact legislation that promoted health, moral, safety and general welfare objectives. This is the basic rationale for virtually all sign codes. Cities only needed to show the regulation wasn’t arbitrary and could be rationally linked to a governmental objective.

Other First Amendment Cases
In 1977, the township of Willingboro, NJ, banned “for sale” signs on residential lawns in an attempt to prevent “white flight” from racially integrated neighborhoods. This also falls under the tenets of a “content neutrality” violation because it was based solely on the signs’ messages.  In Linmark Associates v. Township of Willingboro, SCOTUS ruled this to be unconstitutional because it unduly restricted the free flow of information. The defendants tried to use the “time, place and manner” defense, but it was overruled. The court ruled that the sign provides an immediate way to react.

Penn State Study Provides Optimum Lighting Levels

Illuminating signs, including electronic message centers (EMCs), at inappropriate lighting levels hurts everyone. If the LEDs that light the sign aren’t bright enough, then the sign won’t be legible at night, and the sign loses its nocturnal value. The energy used to light the sign is wasted.

Conversely, if the LEDs are lit too brightly, everyone also loses. The “sometimes more is less” axiom holds true, because when signs are lit too brightly, they become illegible. Plus the excessive brightness upsets people. Excessive energy use is coupled with ineffectiveness. Additionally, when LEDs are lit to intensities in excess of their intended use, their lifetime is exponentially shortened. And, once again, energy is wasted.

So, what is the “just right” illumination level?

The United States Sign Council commissioned The Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute at Pennsylvania State University to make this determination, specifically for LED illumination, in 2015. USSC has been working with Penn State (PSU) since 1996, and this collaboration has subsequently produced 18 research projects directly related to optimum usage of on-premise signage.

PSU surveyed EMC manufacturing companies and asked their opinions about optimum lighting levels, but there was no consensus. Nor did prior research on the subject produce a consensus. So PSU set up two EMCs on its track at the Larson Institute and 48 licensed drivers (an equal number of males and females). They read two words in 12-in.-tall letters from a distance of 360 ft. in eight sign-color combinations.

Full study here.

University of Cincinnati Professor Researches the Importance of On-Premise Signs To Shoppers

Better Homes & Gardens magazine conducts annual surveys with its subscribers as part of The American Grocery Shopper Study™. Over a three-year period (2011-2013), University of Cincinnati professor Dr. James Kellaris added questions about the importance of on-premise signage. Here are the three-year summaries (presented chronologically) of “yes” responses to specific statements:

“One of the first things I notice about a new or unfamiliar business is the signage outside its building.”

2013 76.0%, 19.1%, 4.9%

“In addition to identifying a business, signs can convey the personality or character of the business.”

2012: 85.7%, 11.9%, 2.4%

2013: 83.9%, 14.5%, 1.6%

“The letters on signs should be large enough for passing motorists to read at a glance.”

2012: 90.9%, 8.4%, 0.7%

2013: 91.4%, 7.8%, 0.8%

“I get frustrated and annoyed when signs are too small to read.”

2012: 81.5%, 13.7%, 4.8%

2013: 83.0%, 13.9%, 3.1%

“Smaller signs are generally more attractive than larger signs.”

2012: 13.5%, 52.1%, 34.3%

2013: 14.1%, 51.3%, 34.7%

“Uniformity of signage within a business district looks attractive, but makes businesses harder to identify ta a glance.”

2012: 62.7%, 30.15, 7.2%

2013: 69.5%, 26.9%, 3.6%

The survey also asked respondents: “What make signs difficult to read?” In order of importance, their answers were:

The letters are too small (83.3%)

The placement of the sign makes it hard to see (71.4%)

The sign is not sufficiently lit at night (63.6%)

The color of the letters does not stand out from the background (60.3%)

Digital signs change the message too fast (52.6%)

How Big Should a Sign’s Letters Be?

Signs need to be legible and readable, for both pedestrians and motorists. But the safety consideration becomes paramount for the latter. Consequently, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) sets minimum standards for the letters that appear on the interstate signs that say “Cincinnati” and “Second St.” and “Next Exit.” These standards are outlined in the FHWA-produced Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). The exhaustive manual specifies the minimum size for every type of interstate/freeway sign. For example, a three-digit exit sign with a single-letter suffix, such as Exit 105A (designated as E1-5P 2E.31 in the MUTCD), must be a minimum of 156 x 30 in.! (13 x 2.5 ft.)

The formulae vary, but they’re based on four primary factors:

  • Distance to the viewer
  • The motorist’s speed
  • The angle from which the sign would be viewed
  • The time necessary to detect and read the sign

So if you know that the care is traveling at 70 MPH, and you know a motorist needs 2 seconds to read the sign (but 5.5 seconds to react/maneuver) , and you know to what degree the driver must turn his/her head to detect/read the sign, you can calculate how far the car will travel while the driver reads the sign, how far away the driver will be when he/she first needs to detect the sign, and then you can calculate how large the letters must be. (Font , upper/lower case,  day/night and the contrast between the letters and the sign’s background are also factors.)

Richard Schwab, who served as chairman of the Transportation Research Board, calculated Minimum Required Legibility Distances (MRLD). For example if a car is traveling at 55 mph, a sign must be legible from a distance of 440 ft. in order to be detectable and readable. At a traveling speed of 25 mph, the MRLD drops to 200 ft.

For highway signs, the standard is that each letter in a sign must be at least 1 in. tall for every 40-50 ft. of viewing distance. Thus, in our 55-mph example above, a sign that’s 440 ft. away would need to have individual letters at least 11 in. tall.

And, then, the overall size of the sign would need to consider the number of letters, and the appropriate percentage of background (or “negative space”), which is generally considered to be 60% of the overall size. Also, the further away the driver is from the sign, the higher the sign needs to be to be legible.

Again, per Schwab, signs on an urban freeway need to be 75 ft. tall. On roads with a 55-mph traveling speed, signs must be 50 ft. tall. But if the traffic speed is 25 mph, signs only need to be 12 ft. tall.

The Pennsylvania Transportation Institute of the Pennsylvania State University conducted 10 sign-related studies between 1996 and 2010. In terms of viewing distance and visual acuity, it has calculated Viewer Reaction Time average in simple environments for pre-sign maneuver is 8 seconds; and for post-sign maneuvers, 4 seconds. In complex or multi lane-environments, the pre-sign maneuver average advances to 10 or 11 seconds, respectively, and the post-sign maneuver average advances to 5 or 6 seconds.

This is included in a 2015 publication called the United States Sign Council Best Practice Standards for On-Premise Signs. Go to http://www.ussc.org/pdf/USSCSignStandardsJune102015FINALEDITION.pdf

In this same publication, Penn State has also calculated Viewer Reaction Distance. The distance between the viewer and the sign at the point of initial detection determines the letter height necessary for the viewer to acquire and understand the message. By converting Viewer Reaction Time to Viewer Reaction Distance, a relatively precise calculation of initial detection distance can be established.

Viewer Reaction Distance, expressed in feet, can be calculated by first converting travel speed in miles per hour (MPH) to feet per second (FPS) by using the multiplier 1.47.

FPS = (MPH) 1.47

Viewer Reaction Distance (VRD) is then calculated by multiplying feet per second by the Viewer Reaction Time (VRT).

The following is the resultant equation:

VRD = MPH x VRT x 1.47

The contrast (distinguishing between the sign’s copy and the background) is also impacted by the color combination. The optimum combination is black letters on a yellow background. The standard for federal highway signs, white copy on a green background, ranks at #8.

Legibility is also better for words in a combination of upper- and lower-case, rather than all capital letters, so this affects visual acuity as well.

Penn State has similarly calculated a Legibility Index that accounts for variations in visibility based on the combination of background and foreground colors. This is also included in the 2015 publication.

Overall, on average, Penn State has calculated that the ratio of necessary sign height to viewing distance is 1 in. for every 30 ft. Thus, if a sign must be readable from 300 ft., its letter must be at least 10 in. tall.

(Similarly, Dawn Jourdan, the associate professor and director of regional and city planning at the University of Oklahoma, in her 2014 evidence-based sign code, also uses an average formula of 1 in. in letter height for every 30-ft. distance from which the sign would be read.)

Also, Penn State has created a 10-step succession of calculations to determine appropriate sign size:

  1. Determine speed of travel (MPH) in feet per second (FPS): (MPH x 1.47).
  2. Determine Viewer Reaction Time (VRT).
  3. Determine Viewer Reaction Distance (VRT x FPS).
  4. Determine Letter Height in inches by reference to the Legibility Index (LI):  (VRD/LI).
  5. Determine Single Letter Area in square inches (square the letter height to obtain area occupied by single letter and its adjoining letterspace).
  6. Determine Single Letter Area in square feet: Single Letter Area in square inches/144.
  7. Determine Copy Area (Single Letter Area in square feet x total number of letters plus area of any symbols in square feet).
  8. Determine Negative Space Area at 60% of Copy Area (Copy Area x 1.5).
  9. Add Copy Area to Negative Space Area.
  10. Result is Area of Sign in square feet.

Are On-premise Signs Important to Shoppers?

Better Homes & Gardens magazine conducts annual surveys with its subscribers as part of The American Grocery Shopper Study™. Over a three-year period (2011-2013), questions were added about the importance of on-premise signage. Here are the three-year summaries (presented chronologically) of “yes” responses to specific statements:

“I have driven by and failed to find a business because the signage was too small or unclear.” 49.7%, 60.8%, 64.0%

“I have been drawn into unfamiliar stores based on the quality of their signs.” 29.0%, 35.8%, 34.8%

“I have made quality assumptions based on a store having clear and attractive signage.” 34.5%, 41.5%, 42.2%

For another set of statements, respondents could answer “agree,” “neutral” or “disagree” (presented chronologically).





2012:

“One of the first things I notice about a new or unfamiliar business is the signage outside its building.”

2013 76.0%, 19.1%, 4.9%

“In addition to identifying a business, signs can convey the personality or character of the business.”

2012: 85.7%, 11.9%, 2.4%

2013: 83.9%, 14.5%, 1.6%

“The letters on signs should be large enough for passing motorists to read at a glance.”

2012: 90.9%, 8.4%, 0.7%

2013: 91.4%, 7.8%, 0.8%

“I get frustrated and annoyed when signs are too small to read.”

2012: 81.5%, 13.7%, 4.8%

2013: 83.0%, 13.9%, 3.1%

“Smaller signs are generally more attractive than larger signs.”

2012: 13.5%, 52.1%, 34.3%

2013: 14.1%, 51.3%, 34.7%

“Uniformity of signage within a business district looks attractive, but makes businesses harder to identify at a glance.”

2012: 62.7%, 30.15, 7.2%

2013: 69.5%, 26.9%, 3.6%

The survey also asked respondents: “What make signs difficult to read?” In order of importance, their answers were:

The letters are too small (83.3%)

The placement of the sign makes it hard to see (71.4%)

The sign is not sufficiently lit at night (63.6%)

The color of the letters does not stand out from the background (60.3%)

Digital signs change the message too fast (52.6%)

Do Signs Help First-time Customers Find Stores?

Signtronix is a California-based sign manufacturer that creates signs for small independent businesses nationwide. From 1996 through 2011, it asked its customers (retailers) to ask their first-time customers (shoppers) how they first found out about their store. Over this 14-year period, 46% of these 13,040 first-time patrons said they’d heard about the retailer because of its on-premise sign. Other possible responses were “word of mouth,” (37%) and “Yellow Pages,” “newspaper,” “radio” and “television,” all at less than 10%. Here were some of the initial verbatim comments from new sign owners (as reported in the June 1998 issue of Signs of the Times magazine):

• From a Lebanon, IL cleaners: “We have added 20 new customers who didn’t know we were here.”

• From a Cedar Springs, MI picture framer: “Our business has increased 30-40% because of the sign.”

• From a Santee, SC BBQ restaurant: “In the first week of the sign being hung up, our business increased by at least 60-70%.”

• From a Bradley, IL comic-book store: “Ninety percent of the new customers came in because the sign attracted their attention.”

• From a Cookeville, TN tattoo shop:  “No more than 10 minutes after putting up the new sign, two customers pulled in.”

• From a Clover, SC flower shop, three weeks after getting a new sign: “I have gotten about 30 new customers.”

• A San Fernando, CA car dealer said sales increased by $6,000 net per week, so the sign paid for itself in less than a month. He decreased his other advertising from $16,000 to $12,000 per month.

How Does the Copyright Protection of the 1982 Lanham Act Affect Signs?

The Lanham Act, also known as the Trademark Act, was originally passed in 1946. It has been revised several times since then, including 1982, when it was revised by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to prevent cities/municipalities from requiring businesses to alter federally registered trademarks. Section 1121(b) of the act states: “No state or other jurisdiction of the United States or any political subdivision or any agency thereof may require alteration[emphasis added] of a registered mark, or require that additional trademarks, service marks, trade names, or corporate names contemplated by the registered mark, as exhibited in the certificate of registration issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.”

This means that sign codes can’t constitutionally prevent copyrighted colors, logos, fonts, etc.,from being used on a sign. Perhaps the most significant court cases involved  Blockbuster and Video Update signs in notoriously strict Tempe, AZ . The city wasn’t allowed to force Blockbuster to change the blue color of its federally registered trademark to pink and white. Similarly, Video Update’s federally registered red color couldn’t be forced to adhere to shopping center’s mandate of white letters on a turquoise background. Blockbuster’s trademark also specifies a blue awning.

However, caution must be exercised because the Lanham Act doesn’t apply to landlords who might want to prohibit copyrighted colors, shapes, etc. It only addresses governmental prohibitions. A full discussion of this aspect appeared in the November 1998 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.