Taking trademark law several steps too far

Johnson &Johnson is apparently desperate to gain market share. The medical giant has focused its energies on a very perplexing target: The American Red Cross.

The New Brunswick, N.J.-based maker of Tylenol, Neosporin and Band-Aids filed a lawsuit against the non-profit humanitarian organization last week. Here’s what the company, which took in $53 billion last year, wants the Red Cross to do: Stop using the red cross emblem on the products it sells to the public; destroy all of the unsold products; give all of the money it made from sales to J&J – with interest; and pay legal fees and unspecified damages.

Even though the Red Cross has made first-aid and emergency kits available for more than a century, it only recently started selling them in big-box stores like Target and Wal-Mart. The decision to make them available to more people came after the terrorist attacks and natural disasters of the past few years.

The Red Cross made about $2 million from those sales, which it said it reinvested in its emergency relief programs. J&J CEO Bill Weldon’s salary alone was almost that much last year.

Corporate responsibility is the buzzword of the day in business. J&J’s move to punish the Red Cross certainly won’t earn any points with the public. In recent years, J&J has put more focus on competing with Merck, Novartis and other prescription drug manufacturers than keeping pace with Procter &Gamble, its chief rival in consumer products, making this lawsuit particularly bizarre.

If J&J really wants to go after a company allegedly profiting from its symbol, it could try any of the number of video and computer game producers who have used the symbol for years.

The American Red Cross was started by Congress in 1905. In 1906, Johnson &Johnson officially registered the red cross symbol. It’s sad to see their peaceful coexistance end in a courtroom under such ridiculous circumstances.

Trademark infringement lawsuits should be reserved for legitimate corporate competitors. If 3M started to put a red cross on its bandages, that would be something worthy of the legal team. Penalizing the Red Cross for wanting to cast a wider net to help more people in times of crisis is petty and reprehensible.

We suspect consumers will agree.

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