The red cross symbol is an icon of relief from disaster. For months, it has also been the subject of a festering disagreement between major American institutions: the health care company Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and the American Red Cross.
The dispute over rights to the symbol erupted on Wednesday in federal court in Manhattan, where J&J sued the American Red Cross, accusing the organization of violating its long-standing agreement on its use of the company’s iconic trademark.
President of the American Red Cross Mark W. Everson in a news release, said the company’s actions were “obscene” and “simply so that J&J can make more money.” In a telephone interview, he said, “I’m sort of staggered that they would take this approach.”
The two had shared the symbol amicably for more than 100 years - J&J on its commercial products like Band-Aids and Tylenol, and the American Red Cross as a symbol of its relief efforts on foreign battlefields and in disasters such as floods and tornadoes.
From time to time, the American Red Cross sold products bearing the symbol as fund-raising efforts. Jeffrey J. Leebaw, a spokesman for J&J, said the company had no objection to that. But in 2004, the American Red Cross began licensing the symbol to commercial partners selling products at retail. According to the lawsuit, those products include humidifiers, medical examination gloves, nail clippers, combs and toothbrushes.
“What we’re talking about here is their deviation from a long-standing partnership and collaboration around the use of this trademark, and their push to commercialize this trademark in the for-profit arena,” Leebaw said. “We deeply regret that it has become necessary to file this complaint. The company has the highest regard for the American Red Cross and its mission.” Leebaw added that J&J had contributed more than $5 million (Rs20.2 crore) to the American Red Cross in the last three years.
John T. Crisan, general counsel for J&J’s consumer products division, said on Wednesday that the company had met the American Red Cross to try to resolve the dispute. Crisan said it was not clear how far the American Red Cross wanted to go in licensing the symbol for commercial purposes, noting that the red cross was a trademark of J&J before the American Red Cross was officially chartered.
Everson said that the items the American Red Cross was licensing for retail sale include emergency preparedness kits and grooming kits. Non-profit organizations get part of the revenue from sales of those products, amounting to what he estimated was less than $10 million a year. “It’s consistent with our mission,” he said. “People will buy disaster kits, sometimes on an impulse basis. That American Red Cross image on there gives them the confidence that there are the right things in the kit. We think they’re all done with that preparedness theme.”
The lawsuit filed on Wednesday says that J&J has used the red cross symbol since 1887 on a wide range of products, including wound care products and first-aid kits. The company entered into an agreement with the American Red Cross in 1895. The agreement acknowledged J&J’s exclusive right to the red cross as a “trademark for chemical, surgical and pharmaceutical goods of every description,” according to the lawsuit
The lawsuit says that the American Red Cross has the right under a Congressional charter awarded in 1900 to use the red cross design in connection with its efforts to provide voluntary relief. “Carrying out a commercial enterprise or business is not, and never has been one of the purposes of the American Red Cross.”
The American Red Cross licensees include Learning Curve Brands Inc., which sells first-aid kits at Target and other retailers; Water-Jel Technologies, which places the cross on a hand sanitizer product; and Magla Products Llc., which uses the cross on medical examination gloves, according to the lawsuit, which named several licensees as defendants.
J&J, based in New Brunswick, New Jersey, asked in the lawsuit that all the goods be destroyed and that all profits from the goods, along with costs and punitive damages, be awarded to J&J.