This week Brisbane’s street press mX picked up a story which has been causing me considerable consternation since August: American medicinal manufacturer Johnson & Johnson is suing the American Red Cross for trademark violations over their use of the red cross symbol (left: image from Flickr user Newell the Jewell, under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0). Initially reported in the New York Times on 9 August 2007, the suit contends that the extension of the American Red Cross’s product line into emergency preparedness and grooming kits violates a long-standing agreement between the parties. The disagreement centres around the entrée into the market of third parties licensed by the American Red Cross who are selling, inter alia, humidifiers, medical examination gloves, nail clippers, combs and toothbrushes, which is deemed to be pushing the boundaries of what a not-for-profit can undertake, in that they compete directly with the J&J product line. The agreement between ARC and J&J dates back to 1895, when J&J was granted the exclusive use of the trademark for ‘chemical, surgical and pharmaceutical goods of every description’.
The president of the ARC, Mark Everson, is reported to have commented that these actions were ‘obscene’ and were such that ‘J & J can make more money,’ and felt that these were bullying tactics towards the non-profit. J&J retorted that they had the ‘highest regard for the American Red Cross and its mission’, and that the action was lamentable, but nevertheless necessary to protect the brand.
As with taking Creative Commons to court, this is an instance of where suing non-profits isn’t a smart move, if we are to appeal to the economic imperative. Certainly, this litigation can help draw lines in the sand as to what is legally acceptable. What it doesn’t do is bolster what is ethically acceptable. Take a minute to read the history of the American Red Cross. Its charter, as endorsed by Congress, is to be active in times of domestic and international disaster relief, and to assist prisoners of war in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. When a corporation confronts these noble aims arguing its right to turn a profit, it can only come off worse.