Video Games Aren’t Allowed To Use The “Red Cross” Symbol For Health

Video Games Aren’t Allowed To Use The “Red Cross” Symbol For Health
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The developers of Prison Architect found themselves in a pinch of legal trouble recently when they were contacted by the British Red Cross over the game’s use of a red cross on a white background to denote health. While that may seem harmless, turns out it’s not allowed.

As PC Gamer report, the famous symbol isn’t actually in the public domain; it’s governed by the International Committee of the Red Cross, who seek to protect it from what they believe is misuse.

“If the red cross emblem or similar signs are used for other purposes, no matter how beneficial or inconsequential they may seem, the special significance of the emblem will be diminished,” an email sent to the game’s developers reads. “The red cross emblem or similar designs are not general signs of ambulances, health care, first aid, the nursing or medical profession, or similar matters. Moreover, they are not signs to be used for commercial purposes, such as for advertising campaigns or on products.”

Which, fine, whatever. Introversion’s Mark Morris and Chris Delay are understandably upset, though, that the ICRC’s enforcement of this rule is so inconsistent; you can point to countless games, TV shows and movies that use the red cross symbol and get away with it, while their indie game hasn’t just been targeted, but they have been told that their use of it technically constitutes a violation of the Geneva Conventions, and by extension British law as well.

L: older Halo games, R: newer Halo games

L: older Halo games, R: newer Halo games

Introversion have since gone in and updated the game to remove their use of the symbol. Which happens a lot more often than you might realise; while many properties continue to use the red cross “illegally”, others like Halo have quietly changed it over the years without anyone really noticing, changing things like the colour of the icon, or replacing the cross with a “H” or other logo.

Left 4 Dead's health pack

Left 4 Dead’s health pack


      • So long as the red cross extends to the very edges of the white space, you’d have to assume it’s fine, right? Let there be a white border and you might be in trouble.

        • Nah. It would depend on what you are using it on. I like how people think that the law is full of stupid loopholes. Judges in Australia are intelligent.

      • I know your joking but it dosnt matter :p arguing it was the Swiss flag on it ambulance or medical pack wouldn’t work either.

  • Seems odd they’re throwing around the Geneva Convention now, video games have been using this symbol for the past 30 years.

    • Yeah it seems a little late to worry about the diminishing significance of the symbol at this point.

    • They’ve been doing it for a long time, but it appears to be pretty random who they choose to target.

      For example, the exact same issue was encountered with Neverwinter Nights [released in 2002]. The Red Cross requested that they remove the icon from the healers packs in the game, which they did.

      • Yeah, just did some googles, saw the pill getting replaced in Doom (wonder if they though to reclassify in Aus, drugs are bad mmkay) and they heart on Wolfenstein 3D…

  • Huh. I did not know this. Have used the symbol multiple times in my graphic novels, but I won’t in future.

      • In video games it probably would be. The protection in trade marks seems to be for red/white/grey/silver on any of those colours as a background. But from. What I remember the actual wording is “just so nearly resembles”.

  • I recall years ago DOOM having to remove the Red Cross symbol in one of their patches for similar reasons.

  • Old news.surprising some never got the memo.
    Why not just use the St John’s cross? I love the idea of Swiss flag.

    And PS just because others broke the law for 30 years using a copyrighted image without permission doesn’t make it okay to do it now. I mean would these devs like me using images they own in a game of my own?

    • This falls under trade mark law, not copyright. But it also isn’t like a normal registered trademarks mark either. This is protected by legislations in each country who is a partner to the Geneva convention.

      In Australia the minister for defence is in charge of this legislation and decisions surrounding the use of it.

      • According to the Red Cross themselves, it’s not a trademark either:
        It isn’t a symbol of the Red Cross as such. It’s a symbol indicating that its bearer is protected from military attack by international treaty.

        I can see why they want to limit its use. Since the symbol is supposed to protect against armed military attack, an accidental close-up of a health pack on a screen in a war zone could have surprisingly severe consequences. A first aid kit fitted to a combat vehicle is another example.

        • Indeed. It’s not like a registered trade mark. It’s a protected sign. Protected signs are most relevant to trade mark law. Hence most of the cases and decisions are considered in relation to those topics.

  • Wouldn’t using the symbol reinforce the meaning in this case actually making it more recognised as the universal symbol for health? This makes no sense to me that you would try to enforce copyright on the red cross.

    • I think they don’t want their symbol associated with the violent games they’re usually found in.

    • It’s meant to be recognised as the symbol for the red cross in warzones, not become some kind of watered down broad health symbol.

      • ^this – I work in the healthcare industry (data side of things) and a few years back the marketing dept put together a cartoon-style tv ad to promote the eHealth system (PCEHR for anybody who cares) and the ad contained about a the tiniest appearance of a helicopter in the background that had a blood orange, pretty much red but not quite (the company colors) plus sign on it – it made it to TV and 2 weeks later they got the geneva convention thrown at them by the red cross.

        The whole company was then educated on the fact the red cross is an international humanitarium symbol with the sole purpose to convey a ‘dont shoot’ message to anybody who sees it and it’s use is (in Australia anyway) is controlled by Red Cross and the defense department as it is vital that there are no misconceptions in war time/zones.

  • Green cross n s the symbol for first aid… which is why heal meters started going from red to green.

    But dont worry… blue still neans mana ir shields 😛

  • The red cross emblem or similar designs are not general signs of ambulances, health care, first aid, the nursing or medical profession, or similar matters.

    You know, first thought was “that’s ridiculous! Everything uses that symbol!”. So I started doing some quick google image searches and.. it all checks out for the most part.

    Australian Ambulances: They don’t actually use the Red Cross symbol, they use the ambulance service symbol which is variations of four red triangles/wedges/diamonds pointing to the center of a circle.

    Australian first aid kits: Mostly white cross/plus on green/red backgrounds. I did see a few “Red Cross on White background” images, mostly in advertising images for other things, but the only actual first aid kit I found that had the Red Cross symbol was.. an official Red Cross first aid kit.

    Australian nursing: didn’t spot any obvious usage. Mostly blue cross on white background, or white cross on green.

    Australian health care, first aid, medical centres: There are quite a few using the Red Cross on white background. Naughty actual medical places, how dare you!!!

    Video Games: surprisingly few usages showed up in image search, most games use hearts and red bars, and for health packs it’s mostly white cross on red packs etc.

    So there ya go, despite my initial impression that the Red Cross on white background was very commonly used, it actually doesn’t seem to be so.

    • White crosses on red backgrounds are still the red Cross under the interpretation of this legislation in TM law. You are also right that a lot of hospitals use it when they shouldn’t be.

  • Oh bullshit, make money off it if you must, but this is not misuse. Its merely as a symbol of what it represents. Health. Fuck.

        • It’s to stop the red cross from being shot at in war zones. Unlike the health services of particular countries, the red cross or its affiliates will treat both sides. Hence why the Geneva convention is clear on not allowing them to become confused.

          The Red cross doesn’t get money from this.

  • Anyway its the red crosses fault in the first place, they started making and branding their own First Aid kits to raise funds and it was so successful it replaced the traditional green cross symbol… when the brand name becomes synonymous with the product (kleenex, google etc). Now they get their bandages in a bind each time its used on a first aid kit they dont produce… which is sad to think that they rather protect their brand than make sure you can clearly see a medical signage in the event of emergency.

    • @DirtyShadow because the words “First Aid” in big bold letters with the Rod of Asclepius on either side is clearly insufficient and vague

  • Skullgirls ran into a similar problem with their Valentine character, they ended up changing out her red crosses for magenta.

  • Just use a black cross on a white background. That was the colour used for the dress uniform of the Knights Hospitillar, the order of Saint John

  • what if they changed it to “red plus on white background” in red text on a white background and placed that little plaque on the health kits?

    • In Australia, unsure about other countries, the protection is to red white or silver crosses on any combination of background. Noting the law is “so nearly resembles” so you probably can’t get away with grey instead of silver for instance.

  • Question, does the use of the red cross symbol at the top of this article constitute a breach of trademark?

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