Citigroup sues AT&T, claiming trademark on phrase “thank you”

"Mammon and His Slave" woodcut by Johann Jacob Weber, c. 1896

“Mammon and His Slave” woodcut by Johann Jacob Weber, c. 1896

Like most consumers, I associate the phrase “thank you” with Citigroup THANKYOU Marks, which the financial-services giant uses in its customer rewards programs. When I hold the door open for a little girl and she says “thank you,” I suffer a moment of confusion. How has this child become employed by Citigroup, and why has my act of courtesy earned me THANKYOU Mark rewards? But then I remember that, oh yeah, trademark violations have diluted the THANKYOU Mark brand to the point where people started using it in non-rewards point contexts. It’s the kind of infringement on intellectual property that has become too common in the modern world. Fortunately, Citigroup has fought back against such lawlessness by filing suit against AT&T for using “thanks” and “AT&T thanks” in its own marketing materials.

Ironically,1 these materials marketed AT&T’s co-branded Citigroup credit card. According to the plaintiffs, the phone company’s use of “thanks” is “likely to cause consumer confusion and constitutes trademark infringement, false designation of origin, and unfair competition in violation of Citigroup’s rights.” Citigroup argues that “THANKYOU Marks are widely recognized by the general consuming public,” and that people who see the phrase “thank you” therefore assume it pertains to Citigroup rewards.

It is tempting to see the absurdity of this claim as evidence that American intellectual property law has become a cudgel for established firms. I call regulatory capture. But this point of view is flawed, for two reasons. First, the defendant in this case is not exactly a mom-and-pop business getting swallowed by the big fish. After we are all dead, Citigroup and AT&T will bid for the phosphorous in our bones. Second, the very absurdity of this lawsuit reminds us that thoughtless pleasantries have not yet been co-opted by the banking and telecommunications industries, and brand penetration into our daily lives remains less than total. So there’s that.

Perhaps even more importantly, this lawsuit would not have happened if AT&T and Citigroup were not involved in a joint credit card venture. Pretty much every company in the world says “thank you” to its customers. Citigroup hasn’t sued them. Although a trademark claim on “THANKYOU” seems ridiculous at first, it is not completely bonkers to suggest that AT&T customers who receive thank-yous in connection with their Citigroup credit cards might think they were getting THANKYOU Marks. It’s a stretch, but this lawsuit between corporate partners is probably a negotiating tactic anyway. Still, you have to admire the audacity. One is filled with such admiration lately, just looking around.

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