Our current moment of crisis requires some combination of ingenuity and communal spirit and flexibility and, well, the results thus far are a mixed bag. There are countless people willing to give of themselves and their time to help both medical workers working long hours with dangerously low supplies and those people thrown out of work as the national economy abruptly slammed to a halt and companies began laying off employees. There are also those unable or unwilling to let a good crisis go unexploited, and we can only hope that history will be as unforgiving of them as they deserve.
Fortunately there is still some recourse in the present against the worst humanity has to offer, at least in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. 3M, who make, among other things, masks desperately needed by health professionals and others to stem the spread of the disease, is suing a company for infringing upon their trademark and price gouging in making knock-off masks. 3M is alleging that Performance Supply LLC falsely represented itself as an authorized re-seller of 3M’s N95 masks (now ubiquitous in reputation is not supply) while looking to sell counterfeit masks to officials in New York City. Worse yet, the suit alleges that Performance Supply tried to charge a 600% mark-up on the masks, though if you’re going to break bad, you may as well go all the way.
The case represents a few real issues as well as some potential ones to be dealt with during this period. The shortage of medical supplies has made states and municipalities desperate to the point that states are bidding against each other for supplies, and the urgency of the need undoubtedly circumvents much of the due diligence that may take place otherwise; it was inevitable that some would step into that opening to try and make a quick profit. There’s also the very real concern that knock-off products won’t meet the same standards as the real masks and other supplies, leaving medical workers at even greater risk.
Then there is the looming question of how aggressively companies should protect their trademarks at this time when national health concerns trump all else. Provided that 3M or another maker of essential products can ensure another manufacturer can make those products up to specifications, doesn’t it behoove them to relax enforcement and allow for an urgent need to be met, even if they don’t derive profit from every unit sold? It’s a loss of profit in the short term, but aren’t there things more important than profit? And wouldn’t an even greater loss of profit be a health crisis that drags on for months?
It’s said that crisis reveals character, so it may come to pass that many a company will have to reveal their own before all of this is over; let us hope that most aren’t found wanting.
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