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The Ultimate Guide to Intellectual Property Protection for Cannabis Businesses

By Roger Bora
2 Comments

As of this writing, one cannot register trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for cannabis products and services that “touch” the cannabis plant (i.e., cultivate, manufacture or dispense cannabis products), with the recent exception for certain hemp-based products and services, because use of trademarks must be lawful under federal law for federal trademark registration eligibility. Brand owners may, however, secure federal trademark registration protection for their brand names for certain cannabis-related products and services that are currently legal under federal law in advance of what could be the full legalization of cannabis at the state and federal levels.

Federal trademark registration provides brand owners with valuable benefits beyond common law (unregistered) and state registered trademark rights, including the preservation of national expansion rights and presumption of trademark ownership and validity. For those reasons, securing federal trademark registration protection for trademarks is a prudent business strategy.

This article summarizes certain laws and regulations for securing federal trademark registration protection for cannabis products (including cannabidiol (CBD) products) and services. It also identifies other forms of intellectual property protection for  cannabis businesses.

What Are Cannabis, Marijuana, Hemp and CBD?

  • Cannabis is a plant of the Cannabaceae family and contains many biologically active chemical compounds, including the well-known delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) compounds.
  • Parts of the Cannabis sativa plant are controlled under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) under the drug class “marijuana.” The CSA is a federal law that regulates drug policy for the manufacture, importation, possession, use and distribution of certain substances. Marijuana is currently listed as an illegal Schedule I drug under the CSA, along with cocaine and heroin, due to its high potential for abuse, which is attributable mainly to the psychoactive effects of THC and the absence of a currently accepted medical use in the United States.
  • Marijuana, a term the CSA uses, is the dried leaves of the cannabis plant. It is derived from the cannabis sativa and cannabis indica species and is used primarily as a psychoactive drug.
  • Hemp is derived only from the cannabis sativa species and has historically been grown primarily for its strong fibers used for industrial purposes, including for making fabrics, clothing and rope.
  • There is a significant difference between marijuana and hemp with respect to their concentration of THC, which gives the plant its psychoactive effect. While marijuana can reach THC levels of 30%, THC levels in hemp are typically 0.3% or less.
  • The low level of THC in hemp is a reason why federal authorities recently removed it from the legal definition of marijuana, which means that cannabis plants and derivatives such as CBD derived from hemp that contain 0.3% or less of THC on a dry-weight basis are no longer considered controlled substances under the CSA.
  • Cannabidiol (CBD) is an active ingredient in the cannabis plant and is derived primarily from the hemp plant. CBD has been touted for its many health benefits, including for the treatment of insomnia, pain and anxiety, and it has become a widely used ingredient in many types of products, including foods, cosmetics, building materials, industrial oils, plastics and textiles.

Relevant Laws and Regulations

Controlled Substances Act (CSA)

Under the CSA, the drug class marijuana is defined as “all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa L., whether growing or not; the seeds thereof; the resin extracted from any part of such plant; and every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of such plant, its seeds or resin” (subject to certain exceptions). 21 U.S.C. §802(16).

The CSA prohibits, among other things, manufacturing, distributing, dispensing or possessing cannabis that meets the definition of marijuana, including CBD derived from marijuana.

2018 Farm Bill Removes Hemp from the Definition of Marijuana

The 2018 Farm Bill signed into law on December 20, 2018, amended the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 and changed certain federal laws and regulations concerning the production and marketing of “hemp,” defined as “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of that plant, including the seeds thereof and all derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol [THC] concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”

  • Those changes included removing hemp from the CSA’s definition of marijuana, which means that hemp and its derivatives, such as CBD derived from hemp, that contain no more than 0.3% THC on a dry-weight basis, are no longer controlled substances under the CSA.
  • The recent change in the classification of hemp allows brand owners that legally manufacture and sell certain hemp-based products, including certain hemp-derived CBD products, to federally register their associated trademarks.
  • However, the 2018 Farm Bill explicitly preserved FDA’s authority to regulate certain products containing cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds, even if derived from hemp, including CBD derived from hemp. Thus, federal laws, including FDA regulations, must still be considered for product legality before introducing products into commerce.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Even with the removal of hemp from the CSA’s definition of marijuana, not all hemp-derived products are lawful following passage of the 2018 Farm Bill because certain products may still violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. For example, certain hemp-derived CBD products, including human foods, beverages, dietary supplements and animal foods, still violate FDA laws absent FDA approval.

The FDA monitors and investigates the sale of products that violate FDA laws, including CBD products promoted for therapeutic uses and treating diseases. When the FDA detects such violations, it may send warning letters to the violating parties as a first step in the enforcement process.

On December 20, 2018, the then FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. made the following statement on that point:

“We’ll take enforcement action needed to protect public health against companies illegally selling cannabis and cannabis-derived products that can put consumers at risk and are being marketed in violation of the FDA’s authorities. The FDA has sent warning letters in the past to companies illegally selling CBD products that claimed to prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure serious diseases, such as cancer. Some of these products were in further violation of the FD&C Act because they were marketed as dietary supplements or because they involved the addition of CBD to food.”

Furthermore, in a recent letter to a company selling CBD products, the FTC sent a joint letter with the FDA, and that letter included the following statements and warnings:

  • “The FTC strongly urges you to review all claims for your products and ensure that those claims are supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence.  Violations of the FTC Act may result in legal action seeking a Federal District Court injunction or Administrative Cease and Desist Order.  An order also may require that you pay back money to consumers.

  • You should take prompt action to correct the violations cited in this letter. Failure to promptly correct violations may result in legal action without further notice, including, without limitation, seizure and/or injunction.”

What about using hulled hemp seed, hemp seed protein powder and hemp seed oil in human food?

  • In December 2018, the FDA generally recognized as safe (GRAS) hulled hemp seed, hemp seed protein powder and hemp seed oil. Accordingly, the FDA’s current position suggests that those products may legally be marketed in human foods for the uses described in the notices, provided they comply with all other requirements. To date, the FDA has not received any GRAS notices for the use of hemp-derived ingredients in animal food.
  • Hemp seeds are the seeds of the Cannabis sativa plant. They do not naturally contain THC or CBD. The hemp seed-derived ingredients that are the subjects of the GRAS notices contain only trace amounts of CBD and THC. The FDA has reported that “[c]onsumption of these hemp seed-derived ingredients is not capable of making consumers ‘high.’”
  • Those GRAS conclusions do not affect the FDA’s position on the addition of CBD and THC to food.

U.S. Trademark Registration Eligibility

Trademarks Must Be Used for Lawful Activities

A trademark’s use must be lawful under federal law for federal trademark registration eligibility. Whether activities associated with cannabis and/or cannabis-related goods or services are lawful under federal law requires review of various federal laws, including the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

Federal law controls federal trademark registration eligibility, period.

If a trademark application is filed for goods or services that violate federal laws, including for marijuana products and/or services or certain products that feature CBD, such as foods and nutritional supplements, the USPTO Examiner should refuse the application. Furthermore, filing an “intent-to-use” trademark application cannot obviate that refusal.

What does that mean? It means that filing a trademark application based on an “intent to use” the trademark “in the future” in anticipation of federal law legalizing cannabis still violates current law (the law as of the application filing date), and thus the application should be rejected because the applicant does not and cannot have a “bona fide intent” to use the applied-for mark for a legal purpose.

The USPTO Examination Guide 1-19 for examining cannabis marks states that:

“[r]egistration of marks for foods, beverages, dietary supplements, or pet treats containing CBD will still be refused as unlawful under the FDCA, even if derived from hemp, as such goods may not be introduced lawfully into interstate commerce.”

The following is an excerpt from an issued Trademark Office action refusing registration of a mark on the basis the listed cannabis goods are unlawful:

“Registration is refused because applicant does not have a bona fide intent to lawfully use the applied-for mark in commerce.

To qualify for federal trademark/service mark registration, the use of a mark in commerce must be lawful. Gray v. Daffy Dan’s Bargaintown, 823 F.2d 522, 526, 3 USPQ2d 1306, 1308 (Fed. Cir. 1987) (stating that “[a] valid application cannot be filed at all for registration of a mark without ‘lawful use in commerce’”); TMEP §907; see In re Stellar Int’l, Inc., 159 USPQ 48, 50-51 (TTAB 1968); Coahoma Chemical Co., Inc. v. Smith, 113 USPQ 413 (Com’r Pat. & Trademarks 1957) (concluding that “use of a mark in connection with unlawful shipments in interstate commerce is not use of a mark in commerce which the [Office] may recognize.”). Thus, the goods and/or services to which the mark is applied must comply with all applicable federal laws. See In re Brown, 119 USPQ2d 1350, 1351 (TTAB 2016) (citing In re Midwest Tennis & Track Co., 29 USPQ2d 1386, 1386 n.2 (TTAB 1993) (noting that “[i]t is settled that the Trademark Act’s requirement of ‘use in commerce,’ means a ‘lawful use in commerce’”)); In re Pepcom Indus., Inc., 192 USPQ 400, 401 (TTAB 1976); TMEP §907.

Here, the items or activities to which the proposed mark will be applied are unlawful under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA), 21 U.S.C. §§801-971.”

USPTO Guidelines for Marijuana and Hemp Products: Key Takeaways

  • Trademark registrations for marijuana and marijuana by-products, including CBD derived from marijuana, are still unavailable.
  • Trademark registrations for certain hemp products are available. If an applicant’s goods are derived from hemp, as defined in the 2018 Farm Bill, the identification of goods must specify that they are derived from hemp and that the products contain less than 0.3% THC. Thus, the scope of the resulting registration will be limited to goods compliant with federal law.
  • Trademark applications covering certain CBD infused products, including foods, beverages, dietary supplements and pet foods, are still refused, even if derived from hemp, because such goods may not be introduced lawfully into commerce without FDA approval.
  • The USPTO is currently approving trademarks for skin care preparations and cosmetics that feature hemp ingredients, including CBD derived from hemp, as long as the application complies with the 2018 Farm Bill and USPTO filing requirements.
  • If a pending application’s filing date is prior to December 20, 2018 (the effective date of the 2018 Farm Bill), the applicant must amend the filing date to a date later than December 20, 2018 before the application may proceed. Once the date has been amended, a new search is conducted for any prior pending confusingly similar marks.
  • Trademark applications for hemp cultivation and production, if allowed, will require proof of authorization and licensure in accordance with a plan approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Federal Trademark Registration Considerations and Options

Although marijuana products and services (i.e., products and services that “touch the plant”) and certain hemp-based products are currently illegal under federal law, making their associated marks ineligible for federal trademark registration protection, there are still certain cannabis-related activities that are legal and thus eligible for federal trademark registration.

Examples of legal activities include:

  • Providing informational services related to cannabis or marijuana-related goods and services.
  • Clothing, including t-shirts and hats, featuring a cannabis-related trademark.
  • Educational programs in the fields of cannabis and CBD, including for health benefits and therapeutic uses of medical cannabis and CBD.
  • Providing an internet news portal featuring links to current events, information, commentary, non-downloadable publications in the nature of brochures, articles, and non-downloadable multimedia files containing video, audio or text in the fields of cannabis or cannabis news.
  • Online journals, namely blogs featuring information about cannabis.
  • Entertainment services, namely, providing podcasts featuring medical and industry experts in the field of cannabis and medical marijuana.

If a brand owner secures federal trademark registration protection for marks for legal activities, including those listed above, those trademark registrations and rights may arguably preserve future product and service expansion under the same registered mark for “related” goods and/or services that are unlawful as of the trademark application filing date, but later become lawful, including CBD infused foods and nutritional supplements and marijuana itself.

Why? Because trademark law protects consumers from “source confusion.”

  • For example, if a brand owner adopts the trademark N-DuraRun for running shoes, another party may not adopt the same or confusingly similar mark for running pants because consumers would likely be confused as to the source of running shoes and running pants if offered under the same trademark by different parties.
    • It is not confusion as to what a consumer is buying (“I thought I was buying running shoes… instead I mistakenly purchased running pants…”). Rather, it is confusion as to the source of the products (“I purchased EnDuraRun brand running pants because I thought they were made by the same company that makes N-DuraRun brand running shoes!”).
    • A question to ask is “Would the average consumer reasonably believe that the parties’ respective goods are of the type that would originate from the same source?”
      • If the answer is “yes” and if the parties’ respective marks are confusingly similar, there may be a likelihood of consumer confusion as to the source of the parties’ respective goods.

For example, if a company provides informational services in the field of cannabis and cannabis derivatives, including CBD infused foods, and/or provides foods and nutritional supplements featuring hemp seed protein powder and hemp seed oil, and it secures federal trademark registration protection for its trademark for those goods and/or services, that existing federal trademark registration and rights may arguably preserve the brand owner’s right to use and register the same mark for “related” goods and services, which could include CBD-infused foods and nutritional supplements if/when those goods become legal. That is so because the average consumer would arguably believe that informational services about CBD infused foods and CBD infused foods themselves would originate from the same source and also believe that foods and nutritional supplements featuring hemp seed protein powder and hemp seed oil and foods and nutritional supplements featuring hemp-derived CBD would originate from the same source.

Source confusion is the crux of trademark law.

Therefore, securing federal trademark registration protection now for goods and services that are lawful can preserve future trademark rights for cannabis-related products and services that are currently unlawful and may avoid losing valuable trademark rights to third parties.

As companies prepare for the potential federal legalization of all forms of cannabis, securing federal trademark registration now for brand names for goods and services that are currently legal is vital for protecting valuable company assets, current and future business opportunities, and future growth, and it is possible as long as brand owners understand the current status of the regulatory landscape and the intricacies of trademark law.

Other Forms of Intellectual Property Protection

In addition to trademark and federal trademark registration protection, there are other intellectual property protections available for marijuana, hemp and cannabis businesses, including:

  • State trademark filings. In states that have legalized cannabis, state trademark registrations may be available.
  • Common law trademark rights. In states that have legalized cannabis, common law trademark rights may be available.
  • Patent protection. Patent protection may be secured for various inventions, including plants, such as new strains of the cannabis plant, and methods of cannabis hydration and lighting.
  • Trade secrets. Trade secrets can protect certain aspects of a business, including formulas, processes or methods, that are not generally known or reasonably ascertainable by others and that can help a business obtain an economic advantage over competitors or customers. To be eligible as trade secrets, however, a business owner must take the necessary steps to legally protect them or they will be lost.
  • Copyrights. Copyright protection may be secured for certain company creative works, including trademark logos (artwork), written materials, photographs and software.

As the laws governing the cannabis industry continue to evolve, including trademark, FDA and banking laws and regulations, all interested parties, including cannabis business owners, law firms and investors, must stay abreast of the rapidly changing legal landscape to maximize business growth opportunities, ensure proper legal and regulatory compliance, and avoid having their businesses go up in smoke.


Notice: This article is for educational purposes only, is not legal advice and should not be substituted for retaining an attorney.

Unique Issues With Cannabis-Related Patents & Their Enforcement

By Michael Annis, Liam Reilly
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While enforcement of cannabis patents through litigation is common, there are other alternatives to litigation. Here we discuss some of the unique cannabis-related issues that could arise before the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

The growth and evolution of the cannabis industry in the U.S. are not slowing. However, the cannabis industry – with its tremendous upside – is still beset with uncertainty and limited legal guidance curbing its full potential. Intellectual property law, including patent protection, has emerged from the murky legal and regulatory landscape as a reliable business strategy with developing certainty.

pioneering cannabis patent case in Colorado has progressed without any indication that cannabis patents are to be treated differently than other patents. Relatedly, PTAB recently upheld the validity of a cannabis-related patent as part of a post-grant proceeding. However, although the courts and the USPTO are not discriminating against cannabis patents because of their illicit subject matter, the true strength of these newly issued patents could be suspect.

The fledgling nature of cannabis businesses and the fact that cannabis is just now emerging from its statutorily imposed dormancy combine to highlight certain weaknesses of the USPTO and its mechanisms meant to strike spurious patents.

For several reasons, it is possible that applicants are propelling cannabis patent applications of questionable validity through prosecution beyond the point that similar applications could proceed. The USPTO’s experience with cannabis patents is limited. The universe of prior art available to patent examiners is also limited. There are only about three thousand active cannabis patents, which would only account for 0.6 percent of the total issued patents in 2015. The legal status of cannabis has also likely deterred the broadcasting of public use as prior art, and enabling publications or other public disclosures covering cannabis (e.g., published scientific studies) are limited as well. Taken together, patent examiners considering applications for cannabis patents are at a disadvantage compared to other applications that the USPTO considers in other fields.

Additionally, the post-grant proceedings before PTAB established to review issued patents of questionable validity are not designed to handle the historical context and unique issues of cannabis patents. The difference in the procedural rules and requirements of two common inter partes mechanisms for challenging issued patents, post-grant reviews (PGRs) and inter partes reviews (IPRs), creates a gap in coverage that is particularly salient to cannabis patents.

Although the cannabis patent case in Colorado is first of its kind, we can expect more to follow in its wake.Where a PGR petitioner is free to challenge an issued patent on effectively any ground, an IPR petitioner is limited to validity claims for lack of novelty or non-obviousness based solely on patents and printed publications. However, the PGR petitioner must be diligent, because it only has nine months from the issue date of the challenged patent to file a PGR petition. After those nine months, the challenger will have to rely on litigation or an IPR, with its limited basis for invalidity.

What this means for a cannabis patent is that unless a challenger – likely, a competitor in the cannabis space – can timely file a petition for a PGR, the basis for challenging the patent before PTAB are limited to those types of prior art that are especially rare in the cannabis space: patents and printed publications. What is more, meeting the nine-month requirement to file a PGR is no trivial task. The cost and time required to research and prepare a petition for PGR are particularly problematic for the cannabis industry with its lack of access to traditional forms of business financing.

As a result, it is reasonable to question the validity of contemporary cannabis patents. Further, because of PTAB’s enforcement gap, a patent challenger will likely have to resort to litigation to bring its invalidity arguments unrelated to claims of lack of novelty and non-obviousness based on patents and printed publications. Such broader invalidity arguments could include lack of patentable subject matter – which is an appealing challenge for patents that stem from naturally occurring plants or products, such as cannabis – or lack of novelty and non-obviousness based on other prior art.

Although the cannabis patent case in Colorado is first of its kind, we can expect more to follow in its wake. And, because of the weaknesses at the USPTO and PTAB, invalidity arguments in these early cases will likely be of increased strategic importance than in typical patent cases.

Who’s Afraid of Biotech Institute LLC?

By Brett Schuman, Daniel Mello, Nicholas Costanza, Olivia Uitto
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While cannabis patenting activity is still in its infancy, relatively speaking, a lot has been written already about the cannabis patenting activity of an entity called Biotech Institute LLC (BI) of Westlake Village, California.1 BI is building a sizable portfolio of utility and plant patents covering various aspects of the cannabis plant. According to some commentators, BI’s patents have “many in the cannabis industry concerned.”2

But how concerned should members of the cannabis industry really be about BI’s patents? Generally, patents are susceptible to numerous challenges in multiple fora. From 2012-2016, approximately 80% of challenged patents were invalidated by the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) each year.3 The PTAB was created in 2011 by the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, 35 U.S.C. § 6, to create a process for eliminating improvidently issued patents. And the statistics suggest that the process may be working as intended by Congress.

BI may be building its portfolio by taking advantage of some unique challenges in the cannabis patenting area. First, even though cannabis has been cultivated and consumed by humans for thousands of years, there is a relative lack of published prior art available to patentees and patent examiners examining patent applications.4 Second, patent examiners are not as familiar with cannabis patent applications as they may be with other types of patent applications.

So, we examined carefully BI’s earliest and arguably broadest utility patent, U.S. Patent No. 9,095,554, and concluded that maybe the cannabis industry need not be so concerned about this and some of BI’s other utility patents. Although the ’554 patent is lengthy – 247 columns of text and over an inch thick when printed in hardcopy – there appears to be little if any novelty to the claimed invention. Alternatively, the patent appears to be obvious in light of the available prior art.

In a patent, the claims define the metes and bounds of the patentee’s intellectual property. Claim 1 of the ’554 patent recites:

  1. A hybrid cannabis plant, or an asexual clone of said hybrid cannabis plant, or a plant part, tissue, or cell thereof, which produces a female inflorescence, said inflorescence comprising:
  1. a BT/BD genotype;
  2. a terpene profile in which myrcene is not the dominant terpene;
  3. a terpene oil content greater than about 1.0% by weight; and
  4. a CBD content greater than 3%;
  5. wherein the terpene profile is defined as terpinolene, alpha phelladrene, beta ocimene, careen, limonene, gamma terpinene, alpha pinene, alpha terpinene, beta pinene, fenchol, camphene, alpha terpineol, alpha humulene, beta caryophyllene, linalool, cary oxide, and myrcene, and wherein the terpene oil content is determined by the additive content of the terpenes in the terpene profile; and wherein the terpene contents and CBD content are measured by gas chromatography-flame ionization detection (GC-FID) and calculated based on dry weight of the inflorescence; wherein a representative sample of seed producing said plants has been deposited under NCIMB Nos. 42246, 42247, 42248, 42249, 42250, and 42254.

While claim elements define the metes and bounds of the invention, typically only certain claim elements are intended to distinguish the claimed invention from the prior art. Other claim elements merely help to describe the invention. For example, the preamble in the ‘554 patent, or the part of the claim before subpart (a), describes the flowering part of the cannabis plant. This is not intended to describe anything novel about the claimed invention, but rather it simply describes the part of the cannabis plant that is relevant to the invention.

The structure of cannabidiol (CBD), one of 400 active compounds found in cannabis.

Before the priority date of the ’554 patent, it was known in the prior art that BT/Bgenotypes produce nearly equal amounts of THC and CBD (both are dominant; one is not recessive).5 Thus, it is not unexpected to have a CBD content greater than 3% in a genotype that can produce large amounts of CBD (known references state as high as 21% in CBD-dominant strains and 3%-15% in BT/Bgenotypes).6 Further, it was known in the prior art that terpenes generally constitute more than 1.0% percent by weight (usually between 2-4%) of the flower.7

As these databases continue to grow and studies of cannabis are publicly disclosed, cannabis patents like BI’s ’554 patent will become more and more susceptible to patent challenges and invalidation.Claim element (b), reciting a terpene profile in which myrcene is not the dominant terpene, appears to be one of – if not the only – claimed element of novelty of the BI invention. Terpenes are aromatic compounds produced in plants, and the cannabis plant has more than 100 different terpenes. Claim element (e) simply lists the most abundant terpenes in the cannabis plant. A majority of cannabis strains express high levels of myrcene; however, there are known prior art strains that express high levels of other terpenes, such as caryophyllene, limonene, pinene, etc. Additionally, it is well known in the art that terpenes have different therapeutic effects. For example, pinene and linalool are known to have antidepressant activity.8 Thus, a prior disclosure of a BT/Bgenotype that has a terpene profile where myrcene is not the dominate terpene very likely invalidates this claim. And even assuming there is any novelty to a high-CBD strain where myrcene is not the dominant terpene, there is a motivation to breed for a dominant terpene besides myrcene.

Because cannabis has been and remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, previously known and used strains generally have not been chemically characterized, studied, researched, and the subject of publications that can be used as prior art for purposes of challenging cannabis patents. But that is changing. For example, the Open Cannabis Project (OCP) attempted to characterize and publish chemical details of cannabis plants. Even though OCP closed as of May 31, 2019, is database is still publicly available. Another example is CANNA, a non-profit initiative of the CANNA Espana Fertilizantes SL company, which carries out studies and conducts research on cannabis and its active compounds.9 In one study,10 CANNA found that some strains have terpene profiles where myrcene is not the dominant terpene, which could be relevant to a novelty-based or obviousness challenge to claim 1 of the ‘554 patent. As these databases continue to grow and studies of cannabis are publicly disclosed, cannabis patents like BI’s ’554 patent will become more and more susceptible to patent challenges and invalidation.


References

  1. See, e.g.,Amanda Chicago Lewis, The Great Pot Monopoly Mystery, GQ (August 23, 2017), https://www.gq.com/story/the-great-pot-monopoly-mystery;  Brian Wroblewski, Utility Patents on Marijuana? Who is BioTech Institute LLC?, The National Marijuana News, https://thenationalmarijuananews.com/utility-patents-marijuana-biotech-institute-llc/; Eric Sandy, Biotech Institute Has Applied for Patents on 8 Individual Cannabis Cultivars, Cannabis Business Times(June 24, 2019), https://www.cannabisbusinesstimes.com/article/biotech-institute-cannabis-patent-applications/.
  2. Nicole Grimm, George Lyons III, and Brett Scott, Biotech Institute’s Growing Patent Portfolio — U.S. Patent No. 9,095,554 and the Path Forward, JD Supra (November 17, 2017), https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/biotech-institute-s-growing-patent-17433/.
  3. World Intellectual Property Organization, An overview of patent litigation systems across jurisdictions,World Intellectual Property Indicators 2018, https://www.wipo.int/edocs/pubdocs/en/wipo_pub_941_2018-chapter1.pdf.
  4. Brett Schuman et al., Emerging Patent Issues In The Cannabis Industry, Law360(February 20, 2018), https://www.goodwinlaw.com/-/media/files/publications/emerging-patent-issues-in-the-cannabis-industry.pdf.
  5. Chandra, et al. Cannabis sativa L. – Botany and Biotechnology, pages 142-144, Springer, 2017 (citing de Meijer, Genetics163: 225-346 (2003)). See alsoMolecular Breeding (2006) 17:257-268, doi/10.1007/s11032-005-5681-x. 
  6. American Journal of Botany 91(6): 966:975 (2004). doi.org/10.3732/ajb.91.6.966; See e.g., Jikomes, Peak THC: The Limits on THC and CBD Levels for Cannabis Strainshttps://www.leafly.com/news/science-tech/peak-thc-cbd-levels-for-cannabis-strains.
  7. PLoS One. 2017; 12(3): e0173911. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0173911.  See also, Fischedick J. T., Hazekamp A., Erkelens T., Choi Y. H., Verpoorte R. (2010). Phytochemistry712058–2073 (2010). 10.1016/j.phytochem.2010.10.001
  8. J Ethnopharmacol. 2012 Sep 28;143(2):673-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2012.07.026. Epub 2012 Jul 31.
  9. Retrieved from https://www.fundacion-canna.es/en/about-us, on August 6, 2019.
  10. Retrieved from https://www.fundacion-canna.es/en/variations-terpene-profiles-different-strains-cannabis-sativa-l, on August 6, 2019.

US Patent & Trademark Office Issues Guidance for Trademarking CBD Products

By Aaron G. Biros
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Last week, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) published an Examination Guide to provide further clarity for how they assess the legitimacy of trademarks for cannabis products. For the uninitiated, the 2018 Farm Bill, which President Trump signed into law on December 20, 2018, removed hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) from the Controlled Substances Act. In order to register a trademark in the United States, the mark must be used in a lawful setting, meaning that the USPTO does not register trademarks for products that violate federal law- even if it is legal under state law.

In their guidance document, the USPTO identifies the distinction between hemp and other cannabis varieties as the basis for either issuing or refusing a trademark registration. This means that in the trademark application, companies need to specify that the cannabis product is derived from hemp, or cannabis with less than 0.3% THC in dry weight.

The USPTO clarifies that applications for trademarks that involve CBD filed before December 20, 2018 will be refused, but if they amend the filing date to after that date, the registration will be examined. Below is a direct quote from their examination guide clarifying this:

For applications filed before December 20, 2018 that identify goods encompassing CBD or other cannabis products, registration will be refused due to the unlawful use or lack of bona fide intent to use in lawful commerce under the CSA. Such applications did not have a valid basis to support registration at the time of filing because the goods violated federal law. However, because of the enactment of the 2018 Farm Bill, the goods are now potentially lawful if they are derived from “hemp” (i.e., contain less than 0.3% THC). Therefore, the examining attorney will provide such applicants the option of amending the filing date and filing basis of the application to overcome the CSA as a ground of refusal.

The USPTO’s Examination Guide explicitly mentions the authority of the FDA to regulate products derived from cannabis, much like the 2018 Farm Bill’s language. There is still some confusion in the cannabis industry surrounding the marketing and sale of hemp products under FDA regulation.

FDAlogoUnder the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), using a drug in a food or dietary supplement that is currently undergoing clinical trials is illegal (as is the case here- see Epidiolex for an example of CBD being used as an active ingredient in an FDA-approved clinical trial). According to the USPTO, this means that “registration of marks for foods, beverages, dietary supplements, or pet treats containing CBD will still be refused as unlawful under the FDCA, even if derived from hemp, as such goods may not be introduced lawfully into interstate commerce.”

Regarding trademarks for services involving “cannabis and cannabis production,” the USPTO also issued guidance. This section of the Examination Guide pertains to companies applying for a trademark that fall in the category of ancillary services, such as growing supply companies, lighting, nutrients, pest control and packaging, among other service providers. Basically, this section boils down to the same distinction the Farm Bill made between hemp and other varieties of cannabis. An applicant for a trademark needs to make clear their identification of services offered as involving cannabis containing less than 0.3% THC.

For a helpful guide breaking down what this means for cannabis companies pursuing a trademark registration, Christiane Schuman Campbell, partner at Duane Morris LLP, published this client alert about the USPTO’s examination guide.

Richard Naiberg
Quality From Canada

Protecting Intellectual Property in Canada: A Practical Guide, Part 6

By Richard Naiberg
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Richard Naiberg

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth and final article in a series by Richard Naiberg where he discusses how cannabis businesses can protect their intellectual property in Canada. Part 1 introduced the topic and examined the use of trade secrets in business and Part 2 went into how business owners can protect new technologies and inventions through applying for patents. Part 3 raised the issue of plant breeders’ rights and Part 4 discussed trademarks and protecting brand identity. Part 5 took a detailed look at copyright laws for cannabis companies and how they can protect works of creative expression.  

In Part 6, the conclusion of this series, we take a look at nine key takeaways from the series:We hope you enjoyed this series and found the information provided to be useful. If you’d like to learn more about intellectual property law in Canada as it relates to the cannabis industry, feel free to reach out to Richard Naiberg at rnaiberg@goodmans.ca 

Summary of Practical Considerations For Cannabis Producers

  1. Cannabis producers should establish procedures by which the technological innovations achieved by their employees are kept confidential and are quickly reported to management for consideration as to whether the innovation should be protected as a trade secret, by patent, by plant breeder’s right or not protected at all.
  2. If a trade secret protection is desired, the producer must invoke systems that limit knowledge of the secrets to those in the company with a need to know it, and make sure that departing employees understand their obligations of confidentiality and do not take any documentation of the secrets with them when they go.
  3. The nature of the innovation under consideration will drive the choice between a patent and a plant breeder’s right. Plant breeder’s rights only protect whole plants. Patents protect other innovations, subject to the limitations described above. Patents may be drafted to protect whole plants, albeit indirectly: a patent on genetic sequences or engineered cell can be infringed by a whole plant that incorporates those sequences or cells.
  4. The decision as to whether to file an application for a patent or a plant breeder’s right, and in what jurisdiction(s), should be made with careful consideration of whether the producer will employ the invention/variety in its business (and in what countries), as well as the potential value of the invention/variety to other producers who may eventually become licensees of the resulting patent(s) or plant breeder’s right.
  5. Cannabis producers must remain up-to-date on patent and plant breeder’s rights applications that are filed in the jurisdictions in which they operate so as to be in a position to identify patents and plant breeder’s rights that will potentially affect their freedom to operate. Such due diligence will also allow the producer to predict the technological and business focuses of their competitors.
  6. Cannabis producers must select a trademark that is immediately distinctive or can quickly become distinctive of its goods and services. The trademarks ought to be fully available, in the sense that they are not in use by any competing business in any of the jurisdictions in which the producer intends to do business. Ideally, the trademark ought to be available as a domain name to ensure that there is no confusion on the Internet.
  7. Once the trademark is selected, the cannabis producer should make consistent and extensive use of that trademark. The more consistent and ubiquitous the use, the stronger the producer’s brand and trademark will be.
  8. The owner of the trademark must routinely conduct searches to ensure that no third party is using a trademark that is similar that of the owner. If such unauthorized use is discovered, the owner must act quickly to restrain that use or potentially license the use.
  9. Cannabis producers ought to contract to ensure that they are the first owners or assignees of any copyright subsisting in the artwork, literature and websites the company creates or hires other to create. Producers ought also to obtain waivers of the moral rights of any authors of this work.

We hope you enjoyed this series and found the information provided to be useful. If you’d like to learn more about intellectual property law in Canada as it relates to the cannabis industry, feel free to reach out to Richard Naiberg at rnaiberg@goodmans.ca

Richard Naiberg
Quality From Canada

Protecting Intellectual Property in Canada: A Practical Guide, Part 2

By Richard Naiberg
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Richard Naiberg

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a series by Richard Naiberg where he discusses how cannabis businesses can protect their intellectual property in Canada. Part 1 introduced the topic and examined the use of trade secrets in business. Part 2 goes into how business owners can protect new technologies and inventions through applying for patents.


Patents: Protection For New And Inventive Technology

Patents, which are issued in accordance with Canada’s Patent Act, provide their owners with the right to have a Court prevent anyone else in Canada from making, using, selling, importing or exporting what is claimed as the patent’s invention. The owner of the patent enjoys this monopoly for a period of 20 years from the date the patent is applied for. A patent is infringed even if the infringer arrives at the invention independently, without actual copying. If a patent owner brings a lawsuit and the Court finds infringement, the Court will typically order the infringing activity to cease and require the infringer to pay the owner a suitable amount of compensation.

There are several drawbacks to applying for a patent from the point of view of the applicant.Patents are meant to protect only inventions, meaning novel, non-obvious and useful solutions to practical problems. In the cannabis field, such inventions could include engineered genetic sequences or new plant cells that lead to useful improvements in the whole plant, new cultivation processes, new methods of extraction, new methods of storage or means to enhance stability, new formulations for administration, and new uses for the plant. It would not be uncommon for a cannabis producer to hold a suite of different patents that cover a whole range of innovative technologies and innovative business methods.

Not all classes of technical innovations are protectable by patent. For example, patents are not available for a whole cannabis plant because no patents are allowed on higher, multicellular organisms. Patents are not issued for genetic sequences or cells that are the result of cross breeding. Patents are also unavailable to monopolize methods of using cannabis as a medical treatment. That said, patent agents are skilled at casting innovations in areas such as these in terms that do provide some patent rights.

To obtain a patent, the applicant hires a patent agent to prepare and submit an application to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO). An examiner at CIPO reviews the application for compliance with the statutory requirements and enters into a correspondence with the applicant’s patent agent in a process known as a patent prosecution. Third parties also have the opportunity to oppose the grant of a patent on limited grounds. The prosecution may continue for a period of years before the application is either allowed to issue to patent, or is ultimately rejected. Separate patent applications must be filed in every country in which patent rights are sought, though there are international treaties that facilitate these separate filings and preserve early priority filing dates.there can be a significant cost in obtaining patents, particularly if patent rights are sought in multiple countries.

It is important to emphasize that if an invention had been disclosed to the public more than one year before the application for the patent is filed, a patent cannot issue. Cannabis producers must therefore ensure that disclosures of their innovative work be controlled, including when working with partners. This can typically be handled with the use of appropriate non-disclosure agreements.

The prospect of market exclusivity makes the filing of patent applications a must for cannabis businesses, including those just starting out. For a start-up, simply filing a patent application projects that the company has value and a clear vision of its business. Venture capital often seeks companies with patent applications on file because the applications can mature into assets which can be monetized either by protecting a market for the owner, or through assignment or license to others.

cannabis researchers and producers have already filed hundreds of patent applications in Canada. There are several drawbacks to applying for a patent from the point of view of the applicant. Unlike the case for a trade secret, an applicant for a patent must make full and correct disclosure of the invention and how to use it in the patent itself. This disclosure will allow competitors to understand the applicant’s technology. The public disclosure provides a blueprint for competitors to build upon the patent’s disclosure, and to design around it to avoid infringement. Also, and unlike trade secrets, patents have an expiry date after which the public is free to practice the invention. The Commissioner also has the power to issue compulsory licenses to third parties in several circumstances, including when the demand for the patented article is not being met on reasonable terms. Further, the patent right is not infringed when the patented invention is used for non-commercial or experimental purpose. Finally, there can be a significant cost in obtaining patents, particularly if patent rights are sought in multiple countries.

Disadvantages or not, cannabis researchers and producers have already filed hundreds of patent applications in Canada. These applications relate to a wide range of inventions in the cannabis field including new cannabis resins and oils, methods of producing cannabis having improved properties, specific new growing processes, new harvesting methods, new extraction techniques, new formulations for human and veterinary use as foods, medicines and supplements, new delivery devices, new purification methods, new analytical methods, and new stabilization methods. Interested companies can access these disclosures from the public record.

As cannabis companies rush to obtain patent monopolies for their technologies, minefields are created for operating companies. Cannabis producers should obtain reports on what patent applications exist and might be asserted against their operations if and when these applications mature to issuance. With that intelligence in hand, the cannabis producer can understand what threats can be safely ignored and what patents must be addressed by assignment or license, by ‘design around’ or by developing an argument as to why the patent is invalid and thus unenforceable.


Editor’s Note: In Part 3 of this series, which will be published next week, Naiberg will discuss plant breeders’ rights and protecting new plant varieties. Stay tuned for more!

Flag_of_the_People's_Republic_of_China.svg

The Awakening Green Giant: China and Cannabis

By Marguerite Arnold
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Flag_of_the_People's_Republic_of_China.svg

There are many ironies along the path towards global cannabis legalization. Too many to count. But surely one of the oddest was always going to be the reacceptance and relegalization of cannabis in China.

The path so far has been, at a minimum, tortured.

Ritualistic, religious, and medical use of cannabis is mentioned in Chinese texts as early as 3,000 years B.C. and medical literature for the last 2,000 years. Fast forward through Imperial dynasties, the western Age of Empire and exploitation, a cultural and political revolution and two world wars, and it took China until 1985 to actually declare cannabis “illegal.”

Flag_of_the_People's_Republic_of_China.svgDuring the 19th Century British occupation, the majority Muslim Xinjang region of the country was a major cannabis producer (and exporter) to British India.This was done legally and under tariff until 1934 when the communist government cut off legal trade.

Currently,punishment for possession yields10-15 days jail time and a 2,000-yuan (approximately $300) fine. Illegal sales, however, carry the death penalty. Last year, China executed 10 people convicted of drug trafficking in a public space to send a strong statement about the launch of a new anti-drug campaign. It certainly sent a message.

But to Westerners, in particular, a highly confusing one.

So where is the “market?” And how and where is cannabis being slowly reintroduced to the country in the age of global reform?In 2003, they issued regulations to normalize the industry.

Hemp Is Widely Farmed

Farmers in the northerly province of Heilongjiang province, near Russia, are producing hemp legally these days – bound for industrial, medical and edible commercial use. The crop is highly profitable for farmers – bringing in about USD $1,500 per acre.This is far more than other crops like corn. Chinese authorities had, until earlier this century, turned a blind eye to its production. In 2003, they issued regulations to normalize the industry.

This production region also accounts for half of all farmland currently under legal hemp production, globally.

That is not a typo.

More Than Half Of Global Cannabis Patents Are Chinese

During the 20th Century,as cannabis reform moved on, not to mention western medical knowledge expanded about the plant, no surprise, the Chinese government began to lend support to a burgeoning industry and medical research. That also began surprisingly early. During the Chinese involvement in the Vietnam War during the 1970’s, the government needed a source of cheap clothing material for soldiers. They also needed cheap, accessible medicines with strong anti-bacterial properties, particularly in the humid jungle.

Given the highly politicized nature of the plant itself, not to mention current geopolitical developments shaping the global industry, Chinese exports are likely to stir a global conversation.Approximately half of the world’s 600 cannabis patents are now held in China, rivalling the potential of Israel on both the cannabinoid medicine and medical device front.

These days, there is a greater appreciation than ever for “traditional” Chinese medicine,long stigmatized by Western approaches to the same, far from China. The discovery of the so-called “endocannabinoid system” of the body by Israeli scientists at the turn of the century also supports this sea change. Including not only the use of cannabisbut other natural herbs and procedures like acupuncture to stimulate it.

The Chinese domestic medical cannabis trade, in other words, is ready to take off in the world’s largest greying population. The horse has, obviously, left the barn in the West.

But what does all this mean for non-Chinese competitors not only in Chinabut outside of it, as the drug heads for export crop status?

Cannabis Trade Wars Are In The Offing

Given the highly politicized nature of the plant itself, not to mention current geopolitical developments shaping the global industry, Chinese exports are likely to stir a global conversation.

President Donald Trump’s administration, it should be remembered, allowed a British CBD import to enter the U.S. pharmaceutical market this summer (while still banning all U.S. producers from entering the same thanks to delays on rescheduling domestically). It is not an unreasonable prediction to make, certainly after Trump also struck a deal with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu to delay the date of Israeli medical cannabis to the rest of the world in exchange for political support in moving the nation’s capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

A U.S. “ban” on Chinese-sourced cannabis would be one of the most natural responses in the world for the current American administration, which has not only used the cannabis trade card before (Israel, UK) but has yet to move on rescheduling the drug at home.

What To Expect If Considering Importing

Tread carefully. While Europe (at least to North Americans) has its eccentric quirks when it comes to international business, the situation in China is far different.Tread carefully, and find local partners where possible. 

Beyond appalling penalties for getting the paperwork (or etc.) wrong, there aremany differences in business, medical and even broader culture that are completely foreign to Westerners (in particular).

Tread carefully, and find local partners where possible. Where to meet Chinese partners?

Chinese investors are beginning to enter particularly European markets via conferences. In the past several years, while they are still a trickle, Chinese doctors, investorsandscientists have begun appearing in the West. Particularly in more medically oriented forums in Europe.

David Kluft headshot

How to Protect Your Trademarks When You Can’t Protect Your Trademarks

By David Kluft
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David Kluft headshot

Federal trademark registrations are invaluable tools for emerging businesses. They put the world on notice of a company’s name; they can secure nationwide priority over others using similar names; they distinguish a product in the marketplace; they provide crucial advantages in trademark infringement lawsuits; and they are instrumental in building goodwill. But if you sell cannabis, a federal trademark registration will not do any of those things for you … because you can’t get one.

Someday, the USPTO policy may change and there could be a gold rush for federal cannabis trademark registrations.The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) continues to refuse to register federal trademarks for cannabis businesses, even if the sale of cannabis is legal in the state where the businesses are located. The USPTO’s reasoning goes something like this: federal trademark law allows for the registration of trademarks associated with goods in “lawful” commerce, which means that the goods are not illegal under federal law. Cannabis, and its psychoactive component, THC, remain Schedule I substances under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Therefore, irrespective of state laws to the contrary, and irrespective of whether the federal law is actually enforced, the manufacture and sale of cannabis is not “lawful” commerce.

This reasoning is of fairly recent vintage. In 2009, by which time about fifteen states had legalized medical cannabis, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Drug Enforcement Administration would cease raids on state-sanctioned medical cannabis facilities. The USPTO followed Holder’s lead in 2010 and created a new category of acceptable goods and services for marks related to “medical marijuana.” Within months, however, the USPTO had retreated from this “mistake” and changed its practice manual expressly to preclude such registrations.

David Kluft headshot
David Kluft, partner in the Boston office of Foley Hoag, LLP

Many argue that the USPTO’s position is unjustifiable as a matter of public policy. Making it easier to infringe the trademarks of state-sanctioned businesses does not advance the purposes of the CSA, and it directly undermines a key goal of trademark law, which is to prevent the proliferation of confusingly similar trademarks. But the merits of these arguments have been lost on the USPTO, which continues to refuse to register marks for anything it perceives to be prohibited by the CSA.

So if you own a cannabis business, what can you do to protect your goodwill while the federal government maintains its current policy? Below are some ideas. Admittedly, none of them– individually or collectively – is a substitute for federal registration. But each of them is better than nothing, and all of them may help to establish your ownership and priority when and if the USPTO changes its policy.

  1. State Trademark Registrations. Each state has its own trademark registration system. State registration may offer protection from infringers within the state, or at least within the parts of the state where the registrant operates, and for that reason alone it is probably worth the small cost involved. However, state registration will have little to no efficacy outside the state. You cannot use a State A registration to file a lawsuit in State B, or to stop infringement in State B, or even to prevent conflicting registrations in State B. Additionally, most state trademark registrants, unlike federal registrants, do not benefit from presumptions of validity and ownership in the litigation context.
  2. Related Federal Registrations. Many cannabis businesses also pursue federal registrations for whatever aspects of their business are not prohibited by the CSA. For example, even though the USPTO refused the POWERED BY JUJU mark for cannabis vaporizers (because it was CSA-prohibited “paraphernalia”), it allowed the same company to register the same mark for “vaporizers for smoking purposes not for use with cannabis.” The USPTO has also allowed registrations for cannabis-related business consulting (e.g., CANNACARD; PRAIRIEJUANA); investment analysis (e.g., FORTUNE420); clothing (e.g., CANNABIS COUTURE, THE MARIJUANA COMPANY); and for CBD – as opposed to THC – derivatives (e.g., CBD LIQUID GOLD). Once the USPTO permits federal registrations for cannabis marks and the inevitable disputes over ownership arise, such federal registrations for these related products and services are likely to be highly persuasive evidence in the registrants’ favor. Moreover, even in the current legal climate, federal registrations (especially when cited in a demand letter) are of great practical use in convincing others not to use confusingly similar marks.
  3. Common Law Unfair Competition. Unfair competition is a state common law cause of action that was a precursor to modern trademark law, and it is still available to protect commercial goodwill even in the absence of a state or federal trademark registration. However, unfair competition law has similar territorial restrictions as state registration. In some cases, the protected territory may be even narrower, limited only to the area within which the plaintiff can prove consumer recognition of the mark.
  4. Other Intellectual Property Protection. Copyright law, unlike federal trademark law, has no “lawful” commerce requirement, and the U.S. Copyright Office regularly issues registrations for cannabis-related copyrights. While copyright will not protect a short phrase such as a business name, it will protect a creative logo design or original packaging, and can be very effective when it comes to getting infringing uses taken down from the internet. Note also that the USPTO does not appear to have the same qualms about legality when it comes to patents, and it often grants patent protection to useful, new and non-obvious inventions related to the cannabis industry.
  5. Save stuff. Finally, if you do nothing else, save stuff. Document that first sale; keep a copy of that first shipping invoice; and save that file containing your original packaging design. Someday, the USPTO policy may change and there could be a gold rush for federal cannabis trademark registrations. Your lawyer is going to ask you for proof of your first uses of the mark, and you don’t want your response to be a glassy stare. So keep your eyes on the eventual prize and stay ready.
extraction equipment

The Ever-Growing Importance of Protecting Cannabis Extraction Innovations

By Alison J. Baldwin, Brittany R. Butler, Ph.D., Nicole E. Grimm
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extraction equipment

With legalization of cannabis for medicinal and adult use occurring rapidly at the state level, the industry is seeing a sharp increase in innovative technologies, particularly in the area of cannabis extraction. Companies are developing novel extraction methods that are capable of not only separating and recovering high yields of specific cannabinoids, but also removing harmful chemicals (such as pesticides) from the concentrate. While some extraction methods utilize solvents, such as hydrocarbons, the industry is starting to see a shift to completely non-solvent based techniques or environmentally friendly solvents that rely on, for example, CO2, heat and pressure to create a concentrate. The resulting cannabis concentrate can then be consumed directly, or infused in edibles, vape pens, topicals and other non-plant based consumption products. With companies continually seeking to improve existing extraction equipment, methods and products, it is critical for companies working in this area to secure their niche in the industry by protecting their intellectual property (IP).

extraction equipment
Extraction can be an effective form of remediating contaminated cannabis

Comprehensive IP protection for a business can include obtaining patents for innovations, trademarks to establish brand protection of goods and services, copyrights to protect logos and original works, trade dress to protect product packaging, as well as a combination of trade secret and confidentiality agreements to protect proprietary information and company “know-how” from leaking into the hands of competitors. IP protection in the cannabis space presents unique challenges due to conflicting state and federal law, but for the most part is available to cannabis companies like any other company.

Federal trademark protection is currently one of the biggest challenges facing cannabis companies in the United States. A trademark or service mark is a word, phrase, symbol or design that distinguishes the source of goods or services of one company from another company. Registering a mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) provides companies with nationwide protection against another company operating in the same space from also using the mark.

As many in the industry have come to discover, the USPTO currently will not grant a trademark or service mark on cannabis goods or services. According to the USPTO, since cannabis is illegal federally, marks on cannabis goods and services cannot satisfy the lawful use in commerce requirement of the Lanham Act, the statute governing federal trademark rights. Extraction companies that only manufacture cannabis-specific equipment or use cannabis-exclusive processes will likely be unable to obtain a federal trademark registration and will need to rely on state trademark registration, which provides protection only at the state-level. However, extractors may be able to obtain a federal trademark on their extraction machines and processes that can legitimately be applied to non-cannabis plants. Likewise, companies that sell cannabis-infused edibles may be able to obtain a federal trademark on a mark for non-cannabis containing edibles if that company has such a product line.

Some extraction companies may benefit from keeping their innovations a trade secretSince the USPTO will not grant marks on cannabis goods and services, a common misconception in the industry is that the USPTO will also not grant patents on cannabis inventions. But, in fact, the USPTO will grant patents on a seemingly endless range of new and nonobvious cannabis inventions, including the plant itself. (For more information on how breeders can patent their strains, see Alison J. Baldwin et al., Protecting Cannabis – Are Plant Patents Cool Now? Snippets, Vol. 15, Issue 4, Fall 2017, at 6). Unlike the Lanham Act, the patent statute does not prohibit illegal activity and states at 35 U.S.C. § 101 that a patent may be obtained for “any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.”

For inventions related to extraction equipment, extraction processes, infused products and even methods of treatment with concentrated formulations, utility patents are available to companies. Utility patents offer broad protection because all aspects related to cannabis extraction could potentially be described and claimed in the same patent. Indeed, there are already a number of granted patents and published patent applications related to cannabis extraction. Recently, U.S. Patent No. 9,730,911 (the ‘911 patent), entitled “Cannabis extracts and methods of preparing and using same” that granted to United Cannabis Corp. covers various liquid cannabinoid formulations containing very high concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCa), tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), THCa and cannabidiolic acid, THC and CBD, and CBD, cannabinol (CBN), and THC. For example, claim 1 of the ‘911 patent recites:

A liquid cannabinoid formulation, wherein at least 95% of the total cannabinoids is tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCa).Properly crafted non-disclosure agreements can help further ensure that trade secrets remain a secret indefinitely.

Although the ‘911 patent only covers the formulations, United Cannabis Corp. has filed a continuation application that published as US2017/0360745 on methods for relieving symptoms associated with a variety of illnesses by administering one or more of the cannabinoid formulations claimed in the ‘911 patent. This continuation application contains the exact same information as the ‘911 patent and is an example of how the same information can be used to seek complete protection of an invention via multiple patents.

An example of a patent application directed to solvent-based extraction methods and equipment is found in US20130079531, entitled “Process for the Rapid Extraction of Active Ingredients from Herbal Materials.” Claim 1 of the originally filed application recites:

A method for the extraction of active ingredients from herbal material comprising: (i) introducing the herbal material to a non-polar or mildly polar solvent at or below a temperature of 10 degrees centigrade and (ii) rapidly separating the herbal material from the solvent after a latency period not to exceed 15 minutes.

Claim 12, covered any equipment designed to utilize the process defined in claim 1.

Although now abandoned, the claims of this application were not necessarily limited to cannabis, as the claims were directed to extracting active ingredients from “herbal materials.”

Other patents involve non-toxic extraction methods utilizing CO2, such as Bionorica Ethics GMBH’s U.S. Patent No. 8,895,078, entitled “Method for producing an extract from cannabis plant matter, containing a tetrahydrocannabinol and a cannabidiol and cannabis extracts.” This patent covers processes for producing cannabidiol from a primary extract from industrial hemp plant material.

There have also been patents granted to cannabis-infused products, such as U.S. Patent No. 9,888,703, entitled “Method for making coffee products containing cannabis ingredients.” Claim 1 of this patent recites:

A coffee pod consisting essentially of carbon dioxide extracted THC oil from cannabis, coffee beans and maltodextrin.

Despite the USPTO’s willingness to grant cannabis patents, there is an open question currently regarding whether they can be enforced in a federal court (the only courts that have jurisdiction to hear patent cases). However, since utility patents have a 20-year term, extractors are still wise to seek patent protection of the innovations now.

Another consideration in seeking patent protection for novel extraction methods and formulations is that the information becomes public knowledge once the patent application publishes. As this space becomes increasingly crowded, the ability to obtain broader patents will decline. Therefore, some extraction companies may benefit from keeping their innovations a trade secret, which means that the secret is not known to the public, properly maintained and creates economic value by way of being a secret. Properly crafted non-disclosure agreements can help further ensure that trade secrets remain a secret indefinitely.

Regardless of the IP strategy extractors choose, IP protection should be a primary consideration for companies in the cannabis industry to ensure the strongest protection possible both now and in the future.