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What’s in a name?

Plenty, especially if you happen to run a company called Merck. In fact, there are two drug makers with that moniker. One is based in the United States and the other is headquartered in Germany, but is formally known as Merck KGgA. And not surprisingly, they are warring over use of the name — again.

To be specific, the company in Germany has the rights to use the Merck name everywhere in the world, except in the US and Canada. However, the English High Court has just ruled that the other Merck — the drug maker that is based in the US — breached a 46-year-old agreement and infringed on a trademark by using the name ‘Merck’ alone in the United Kingdom.


“Our objective has been to protect the status quo established in the existing agreement”, Friederike Rotsch, general counsel at Merck KGgA, said in a statement.

Merck — the one based in the US — plans to appeal, and turned and filed a lawsuit in federal court in New Jersey, accusing its German rival of undermining its brand identity by using only the name ‘Merck’ online, at conferences, and in press releases.


We should note, however, that the German Merck operates its US unit as EMD Group. Meanwhile, beyond North America, the US Merck operates as Merck, Sharp, and Dohme, reflecting a series of acquisitions years ago. But the effort to create such corporate branding distinctions has apparently not succeeded, and the companies continue to rush to court.

In the lawsuit filed today, the US Merck argues that its German rival is deliberately pursuing a confusing corporate branding campaign as part of a revamped US business to bolster its presence in oncology. This is a fast-growing field in which US Merck is having success. For instance, one of the leading edge immunotherapies, Keytruda, is sold by the Merck headquartered in the US.

“This marked change in Merck KGaA’s business strategy, presence, and growth in the US and its focus on immune-oncology therapies has amplified the likelihood [of ] confusion with Merck and has recently resulted in significant actual confusion,” the lawsuit states.

But why do both drug makers have the same name?

The answer goes back a long time. The original Merck was established as a drug manufacturer in Germany in the 1800’s, but a Merck descendant later immigrated to the US and created a unit known as Merck & Co., which is based in New Jersey. But the company was confiscated by the US government during World War I and later established as a separate drug maker.

Over the years, there have been numerous spats over the use of the name. In 2011, for instance, the companies famously quarreled over a Facebook page name. Facebook apologized for what it called a mistake in allowing the US drug maker take over a page on the website from its German rival.

Perhaps all of this would make more sense if the companies were renamed ‘Murk.’