How AT&T Got Sued By Citigroup For Saying ‘Thank You’

We all learned as children that we ought to mind our manners, but as AT&T learned this week, being polite can have some high costs.

Love may mean never having to say you’re sorry, but trademarks mean never having to say thank you. Unless, of course, you get Citigroup’s permission first, since it now technically owns the phrase.

While that situation may sound like something that should only occur in Bernie Sanders fan faction, the story is somewhat less dystopian than the headline. It’s less about the high costs of being polite and more about how a loyalty program is named.

For over a decade, Citigroup has run card-based loyalty programs on the “thankyou” brand, which hands over points for spending. Last April, AT&T joined Citi’s program and launched a co-branded card with a sign-on bonus covering up to the $650 of the cost of a phone. So far, everyone is still friends.

But then, AT&T went rogue and began offering a separate and unrelated rewards program using the word “thanks” and “AT&T thanks,” which Citi did not take too well. As of now, a complaint has been filed in federal court, and Citi is seeking injunctive relief and damages. The complaint cites eight trademarks using the term “thankyou” and submitted them as “conclusive” proof of Citi’s sole right to its use.

“AT&T’s use of the … trademarks is likely to cause consumer confusion and constitutes trademark infringement, false designation of origin and unfair competition in violation of Citigroup’s rights,” the bank wrote.

AT&T was not persuaded.

“This may come as a surprise to Citigroup, but the law does not allow one company to own the word ‘thanks,’” said spokesperson Fletcher Cook in an email. “We’re going to continue to say thanks to our customers.”


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