23 Jun 2016 16:48 IST

Trademark rights gone cray cray, thankyou Citi

What made Citi sue telecom company AT&T?

The spell-check Nazi in me bristles at the telescoped ‘thank you’.

That’s only because you don’t know what Citigroup has done.

Why, has it flunked a too-big-to-fail test?

No, but it is indulging in predatory linguistic practices that, to anyone who loves the English language, are no less egregious than wilful overexposure to sub-prime mortgages.

Hmm, sounds like you’re agonising over a split infinitive in their ad copy…

That would be sufficient cause for hyperventilating, but Citi’s latest lexical crime is far worse. But let me begin at the beginning.

That would help, thank you very much.

Easy there: you’re liable to be sued by Citi for saying ‘thank you’. That’s sort of what it did to AT&T last fortnight.

Is civility now a crime?

No, because Citigroup has — I kid you not — secured a trademark licence on the use of the telescoped phrase ‘thankyou’ for a variety of banking services. So, when earlier this month, the US telecom giant AT&T launched a customer loyalty programme branded ‘AT&T thanks’, Citi took it to court.

Even by the standards of a litigious society, that sounds absurd.

Citi argues that the ‘AT&T thanks’ programme will likely confuse consumers and “irreparably damage the goodwill and reputation associated with the ‘thankyou’ trademarks.” But AT&T is no less a linguistic monopolist: it attempted to register an ‘AT&T thanks’ trademark, claims Citi. The lawsuit is intended to stop AT&T from using the words ‘thanks’ and ‘AT&T thanks’ in its loyalty programmes and marketing campaigns.

Has AT&T yielded ground?

Not an inch. Its spokesman Fletcher Cook said acidly that while it may come as a surprise to Citigroup, “the law does not allow one company to own the word ‘thanks’. We are going to continue to say thanks to our customers.”

I’m grabbing some popcorn and a front-row seat.

Yeah, it’s going to be fun. But this isn’t even the first instance of the hyper-policing of trademarks. In 2006, supermarket chain Walmart attempted to secure a trademark licence on the use of the yellow smiley-face in the US.

Whoa! How did that play out?

The company had sued a satire artist who had created parody logos of the smiley-face, similar to the one that Walmart uses in its advertising campaigns. But a federal judge ruled that the icon was in the public domain, and that the artist was protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution (which governs free speech), and could not be challenged under trademark licence principles. In the end, Walmart was left with a very grumpy face.

And then, there’s Harley-Davidson. In 1994, the manufacturer of the iconic motorbikes filed to secure a trademark on the rumble of its engine under the principle of ‘sonic branding’. But other manufacturers contested it, claiming that their motorcycles sounded much the same. Harley subsequently withdrew its claim.

And then there’s Donald Trump…

Let me guess: something about his distinctive coiffure?

No, but in 2004, he sought to trademark his signature line — “You’re fired!” — from the reality TV show The Apprentice. But he lost because attorneys believed it was auditorily too close to the board game “You’re Hired!”

Where does this end?

It’s not unreasonable for companies and brands to protect the integrity of their trademarks vigilantly. But by all accounts, some of these (and countless other) trademark claims and disputes point to an Intellectual Property Rights regime that’s gone wild.

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