We have had a running discussion of how copyright and trademark laws have continued to grow to encompass common terms and images. The latest insanity comes from Banking giant Citigroup, which is suing AT&T for its use of “Thank You” in ads to its customers. That’s right, Citigroup claims to own the trademark on “THANKYOU.” So now even the most common expression of civility is claimed as “unlawful conduct” amounting to wanton trademark infringement.
We have been discussing a disturbing trend in copyright and trademark claims over things occurring in public or common phrases or terms. (For a prior column, click here). We have often discussed the abusive expansion of copyright and trademark laws. This includes common phrases, symbols, and images being claimed as private property. (here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). This included a New York artist claiming that he holds the trademark to symbol π.
Citigroup has trademarks the term THANKYOU, including THANKYOU, CITI THANKYOU, CITIBUSINESS THANKYOU. THANKYOU FROM CITI, and THANKYOU YOUR WAY and other permutations as part of its “THANKYOU Marks.” Citigroup was shocked and outraged to learn that another company actually thanked its customers. Citigroup claims that AT&T’s campaign for its Universal Card is illegally marketing the phrases “thanks” and “AT&T THANKS.” It appears that no loner but Citigroup can say thank you because the AT&T thankfulness “is likely to cause consumer confusion and constitutes trademark infringement, false designation of origin, and unfair competition in violation of Citigroup’s rights.”
By the way, AT&T’s hands are hardly clean. The company in April applied to trademark “AT&T THANKS.” Frankly, it is hard to sympathize with either company as it claims the rights to such a common expression. The biggest problem however is that these companies enlist firms that send out demand letters and force settlements from small businesses or individuals using such terms or images. We have discussed how thuggish these legal factory operations can be in sending out these threats. The Obama Administration and Congress have been willing partners to powerful lobbyists seeking more and more draconian measures for copyright and trademark violations.
However, even if you wanted to, be careful in saying thank you after being fleeced. Civility is now owned by Citigroup.
Here is the complaint in the case: Citigroup Complaint
Kudos: Professor Roger E. Schechter