Interview: David Pratt of the Canadian Red Cross

Recently, David Pratt of the Canadian Red Cross sent a letter to a Vancouver law firm representing several game developers, requesting that the games industry cease usage of the emblem of the Red Cross in games. The familiar icon is of course used in an enormous number of video games, most of them first person shooters, to represent health packs or similar items. A few days ago, his letter was published on game industry legal advice site GameLaw.ORG. Pratt points out that not only is the use of the emblem being conducted without the consent of Canadian Red Cross or any other Red Cross organizations, but its unauthorized use is prohibited by international law under the Geneva Convention.

From the letter:

It is our considered view that the various displays of the Red Cross which are referenced above are inappropriate and are a breach of international and domestic law. The fact that the Red Cross is also used in videos which contain strong language and violence is also of concern to us in that they directly conflict with the basic humanitarian principles espoused by the Red Cross movement. The crux of the problem is that the misuse of the Red Cross in video games is not only in contravention of the law, it also encourages others to believe that the emblem of the Red Cross is "public property" and can be freely used by any organization or indeed for commercial purposes. The time and effort we must spend across Canada protecting the emblem of the Red Cross is not inconsequential. The same holds true for the American Red Cross and other national societies around the world.

Click here for the full text.

While it would be admittedly impractical to attempt to address past uses of the emblem on a case by case basis, the organization hopes that publishers and developers can commit to a dialogue with the Red Cross to ensure that its emblem is not used illegally in the future. I contacted Mr. Pratt to discuss the situation and try to get a bigger picture of how the Red Cross' grievances with the games industry relate to the larger picture of the emblem's misuse and the organization's efforts to educate about the emblem's legal status.

One thing that was made repeatedly clear was that the Red Cross is in no way targeting the video game industry in particular; the society deals with infringement of the symbol on a frequent basis, and considers any unauthorized usage to be inappropriate. However, the video game industry's portrayal of the emblem is widespread and the Red Cross is concerned that it may create the false impression, particularly among younger gamers, that it is a public domain image. The current political climate in regards to video games, which is undeniably one of condemnation, perhaps infuses this issue with unavoidable social overtones. Pratt was repeatedly insistent that there is absolutely no agenda at work; this is a matter of control of an internationally protected emblem. The fact that it has sprung up now is unrelated to any legislative or otherwise political concerns surrounding video games.

The full interview follows:

Shacknews: What steps do you plan to take to rectify the problem?

David Pratt: Our first step is education. It's letting people know that the Red Cross emblem is not just a trademark, It's also a protected emblem under international law. In that regard it needs special attention and information.

Shacknews: How long has the Red Cross been aware of the problem, because at least in my own personal firsthand experience I would say this is something that has been going on for upwards of a decade and a half or so?

David Pratt: I have personally been aware of this for about six weeks. I'm not really of a generation that necessarily plays video games. The Red Cross as a humanitarian organization is primarily focused on our international and domestic program. It's only within the last two months that we've done a lot more in the area of trademark protection. Part of that stems from my role within the Humanitarian Issues Program, which relates to international humanitarian law. We felt there was some synergy there with educating people about the emblem rather than sending them legal letters right off the top, that we would attempt to engage them in educational effort. That's how this latest issue got started. I've only been with the CRC for a little over a year now, though the organization has been involved with emblem protection for years. That usually happens by way of people who send us emails when they see instances of unauthorized use.

Shacknews: Is that what happened this time?

David Pratt: Actually what happened in this case, is we have a receptionist, a fellow who's in his early 20s. He plays video games, and he's obviously involved in the Red Cross and aware of this issue, and he brought it to my attention. One of the things that struck us in relation to the video games industry is that while certain products that are out there, first aid kits and so on, that's certainly a problem--and our philosophy is that there's no emblem abuse that's too small to report, because you have to try to get them all, which is a practically impossible task--but one thing we saw with the video games industry is that it has a huge reach, especially with young people. It may create an impression that the Red Cross emblem is part of the public domain.

It's not a question so much of targeting, because we will pursue any case any industry. We're not singling out the video game industry, but the video game industry is an important file we're working on right now. We would never single out one industry for paritcular attention.

Shacknews: Have you been working with any other Red Cross organizations?

David Pratt: Yeah, we're in touch with certainly the American Red Cross and others. However, I want to emphasize this as strongly as possible, this involves people in the production of toy kits, people in the medical profession, doctors and dentists who are appropriating the symbol for their own purpose, people who repair computers who use the red cross as their symbol. There are literally countless examples. Any any given time within the Canadian Red Cross, we're dealing with over 100 cases. It doesn't involve just the games industry, it is cross-cutting, and even actually some governmental and non governmental organizations.

Shacknews: So not just games, then.

David Pratt: We have been involved in legal action against companies involved in first aid, aginst companies involved in medical products.

Shacknews: And governmental organizations, you said?

David Pratt: Well, yes, actually and that's a rather interesting subject. Strictly speaking, the Red Cross does not own the emblem, it is owned by the individual states under the Geneva Convention. Law dictates that both the Red Cross and the governments have a responsibility under the convention to protect the emblem.

Shacknews: Has there been a response from the game development community?

David Pratt: I have seen a preliminary response from some companies. Many have not yet gotten back to me in terms of a definitive response on the subject, but I have been in contact with at least one company who seems interested.

Shacknews: In that vein, has Red Cross been receiving any response from the gaming community itself?

David Pratt: Based on what I've seen in terms of some of the blog sites I've briefly reviewed, the gamers seem to be split. Some say, what's the big deal, why are these people all bent out of shape about this? Others who have presumably doing a little more research are saying, this is a legitimate issue. If the Red Cross is used indiscriminately, in people's minds, it becomes public property. People believe it can be used for just about anything. That's exactly what we're trying to deal with from the standpoint of the Red Cross emblem. In connection with video gamers too, I think there's an issue related to the industry generally which I think is worth mentioning, which is that the video game industry is very reliant on copyright, trademark, IP laws, and so forth, and one would think that the industry as a whole would be generally sympathetic about our concerns with respect to protecting the trademark.

Shacknews: That was going to be my next point, because you're right in that the video games industry does in fact spend a huge amount of time dealing with intellectual property rights.

David Pratt: Yeah, I think there really should be some respect towards emphasizing trademark, which again is really not a trademark but a protected emblem. What people should understand is whether we're talking about the Canadian Red Cross society or the American one or any other one, these Red Cross societies belong to the communities of these countries around the world. Its there to protect people in times of need, and if we can't protect the emblem that represents these societies when intervening in missions of aid, in combat zones or even in non-combat zones, then it's a sad reflection on society as a whole I think.

Shacknews: One thing going on right now in gaming is that it seems like every time gamers turn around, there's another organization or government body or politician trying to legislate or censor gaming in some way. This issue comes as many gamers have been on kind of the permanent defensive over the last few years.

David Pratt: Well, suffice it to say, and I think this is important as well, the basic principles of the Red Cross involve impartiality and neutrality, and independence as well. So we don't engage in issues that I would describe as political. Whether the gaming industry should or should not exist is not something the Red Cross should address, one way or the other. We're not involved in political issues in any way. But we do have a responsibility to protect the emblem. I hope that would be clear to people who buy and use video games. This has absolutely nothing to do with with any agenda regarding video games, we have no interest in that. Our interest lies in protecting the Red Cross. It's important that people in the industry and people who use video games acknowledge that video games are subject to the rule of law as well.

Shacknews: Do you consider it a likely possibility that you may have to take legal action to defend the portrayal of the Red Cross in games?

David Pratt: We have done that in the past, but it's not something that is a tool of choice for us. What we're finding is that once people are educated about the Red Cross, they come on our side in terms of being cooperative, and realize that the emblem is something that must be protected in the interest of everyone. And let me be very clear, this is not just an issue of video games, this is something that is cross cutting across various commercial industries.

Shacknews: Can you ever imagine a sort of game, and this is entirely hypothetical, in which the Red Cross would allow the use of its emblem, perhaps in an educational context?

David Pratt: It's not outside the realm of possibility, but at the same time I think it's impossible to note that we're not in a position to license the use of the Red Cross. If people want to produce educational material that is subject to the approval of Red Cross society, then I can't imagine a situation in which we'd object to that. But it's the indiscriminate use of the emblem, it's the unauthorized use of the emblem that we're concerned about.

Mr. Pratt forwarded me two screenshots from Valve's Half-Life 2 containing examples of unauthorized use of the Red Cross symbol.

David Pratt: I think in this case a picture does speak a thousand words, though we're specifically concerned about the lack of control of the emblem.

One thing is that we didn't go out seeking media coverage. We're just trying to start a broad based education campaign. We're in a position right now where we're responding to people, but we could have used a bit more time on the education side. We didn't expect to get a call from a journalist within a couple weeks after that going up. That may have been just my naivité; I suppose in this day and age, it's only a matter of time before every piece of information enters public discussion.

Shacknews: Thanks very much for your time.

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