A little red cross goes a long way according Johnson & Johnson. On August 8 the New Brunswick, NJ-based health care company sued the American Red Cross over copyright infringement. The case has been hitting the blogosphere hard because of its high spin potential: “Big Business Slams Pious Non-profit” vs. “Federally-funded Agency Uses Non-profit Status to Flaunt Copyright Laws.”

J&J alleges that by licensing the trademarked logo to for-profit manufacturers of retail products (such as first-aid kits) the Red Cross broke a long-standing agreement and infringed on J&J's trademark.

In response, the non-profit agency filed a fiery press release vowing to “vigorously defend our emblem and mission.”

This case is interesting to brand buffs because both of the brands are well-established and have been using the logo for their own purposes for over a century (J&J since 1897 and Red Cross since 1887). AdAge cites an historic agreement between the two entities signed in 1895 hammering out J&J’s rights to use the symbol on “chemical, surgical and pharmaceutical goods of every description.” With 100+ years of brand-equity at stake, there’s even more to lose.

While the move may make J&J look like the bad guy to a public that sees the Red Cross as synonymous with disaster relief, trademark law expert Michael Froomkin at the University of Miami told Marketplace “With trademark law, if you let the camel's nose get under the tent, pretty soon you don't even own the tent anymore.”