Saturday, August 11, 2007

Johnson & Johnson v American Red Cross

The American Red Cross (ARC) expressed outrage earlier this week that Johnson & Johnson (J&J) was suing ARC for trademark infringement. For its part, J&J defends its resort to litigation by explaining that it holds the trademark to the red cross, which ARC can only use for its humanitarian projects. The suit objects to ARC's licensing of the red cross for commercial products. ARC responds that it uses all of the money it makes from first aid kits and other products bearing its symbol for its charitable work. What ARC does not say---and does not appear to deny either---is that the commercial entities to which ARC has licensed the red cross keep their portion of the proceeds.

Thus, on the merits, this appears to be a pretty clear-cut victory for J&J, subject to two important caveats. First, the adverse publicity from this suit---a bit like suing Santa Claus---could do more harm to J&J than the use of its mark would. Second, there's a chance that J&J could lose its mark entirely. Although I haven't done any serious research into the matter, my initial reaction is that if I were defending the ARC, I'd challenge the validity of J&J's mark either on the grounds that it has lost its distinctiveness, or that J&J shouldn't have been able to use the red cross back in 1887. As the J&J press release notes, that was before the formation of the ARC, but it was AFTER the 1864 Geneva Convention declaring ambulances and military hospitals neutrals, and designating the red cross as their symbol. Even if we assume that the Lanham Act takes priority over the U.S. ratification of the treaty, the prior use could void the mark under the Lanham Act (although perhaps it's too late for the ARC to make this argument).

The ARC could even argue that the red cross is not trademarkable because it is very nearly the flag of Switzerland. (The Lanham Act forbids trademark protection for foreign flags.) This argument is unlikely to succeed, however, because the Swiss flag is a white cross on a red background rather than vice versa. ARC would have to argue that the disqualification for national flags contains an implicit corollary applicable to dyslexics.

My suspicion, however, is that J&J will win, in large part because the ARC press release doesn't make any good arguments on the merits. It simply accuses J&J of being a greedy company. Presumably, if the ARC's lawyers thought they had a good response on the merits, they would have mentioned it. Thus, I'm led to conclude that my own arguments above are probably lousy ones.
Either that, or ARC's lawyers did not have anything to do with the press release.