Thursday, August 09, 2007

IP And Sleeping Dogs

Before the War of Jenkin's Ear, British politician Horace Walpole recommended to "Let sleeping dogs lie". When war was declared, he also famously remarked "They are ringing the bells now; they will be wringing their hand soon". Something I ran across today made me think of the sleeping dogs remark.

It seems that multi-national Johnson and Johnson has decided to sue The American Red Cross. Initially, this might appear to be a simple case of rampant corporate greed. After all, the Red Cross is supposed to be a charitable organisation. Unfortunately, things are not quite as simple as this initial impression might suggest. It seems that nobody in this fight is going to end up looking good.

Really, this little spat is a symptom of the wider malaise of the world of Intellectual Property (IP) having gone completely mad. The noxious RIAA are trying sue the living daylights out of anonymous college students, and technically challenged grandmothers. And now we have two organizations, that should have better things to do, fighting over the symbol of a red cross.

The basis of the suit is that Johnson and Johnson managed to get a trademark on a red cross back in the Nineteenth Century, before the Red Cross organisation was recognised in the USA. So, in one sense, the makers of K-Y Jelly look bad for the reasons that appear obvious. However, there is a deeper problem.

Anyone who lived through the Hurricanes of 2005 knows that the Red Cross, while doing some good work, is very far from a perfect organisation. Back then I wrote about the excessively officious procedures of the Red Cross. Since then, a great deal of criticism has been leveled at the organisation, for their rather greedy approach to fund raising, particularly after disasters. Thus, this is not an organisation that needs to have more negative publicity. This law suit though provides just this.

The level of annoyance and frustration that people have with the American Red Cross can be seen in the discussion about this story in the comments section of the Slashdot web site. Although commentators initially target the multi-national, eventually some rather unsavory tales about the Red Cross emerge. So, it seems that on this one, both side lose.

This then is the reason why this silly IP issue one is one on which both sides should have left well alone. Had the American Red Cross not decided to cash in on the red cross symbol, then the suit would have never arisen. That being said, Johnson and Johnson also look bad. This is then the reason why all parties in this fight would have been much better off following Horace Walpole's advice and let sleeping dogs lie.

The CP


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