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.
Under 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.
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 email@example.com
Summary of Practical Considerations For Cannabis Producers
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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!
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.
During 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Alison J. Baldwin, Brittany R. Butler, Ph.D., Nicole E. Grimm 1 Comment
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).
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.
Building brand loyalty should be a goal of any business. However, before a business can build brand loyalty, it has to have a brand. Before beginning our discussion on branding, let’s spend a moment speaking the same lingo. A brand is usually built around a trademark. A trademark can be a name, a logo, a color or a sound for example, something that inspires a consumer to think about a product originating from a particular business. The Feds won’t let you register a trademark for cannabis on the federal register because of its Schedule I status. However, most states where cannabis is legal will allow businesses to register a trademark on the state registry. Now that we are all using the same lingo, let’s get to the interesting stuff.
What Not to Do
The cannabis industry has been known for piggybacking on the trademarks of other brands. And, when cannabis started becoming legal, shoppers where able to find strains like: Dirty Sprite, Candyland, AC/DC, Trapitio, and Starbucks, to name a few. Boy were those brand owners mad- suing over trademark infringement. Not getting sued is a good reason to find your own, unique trademark. There are other reasons.
First, a trademark is an intangible asset having value. A strong, registered trademark will have more value than one that is not. A strong trademark is one that is creative and/or fanciful. Descriptive trademarks are not creative or fanciful. So, for example, “Seattle Canna” is not a strong trademark. Seattle is a geographic identifier and Canna describes the product. Really, do you need to use the word cannabis in your trademark? Be creative here.
One of my favorite canna trademarks belongs to Tumbleweed Farm a grower here in my home state of Washington.
This trademark is creative using the quintessential denotation for a useless weed, Tumbleweed, for something that brings pleasure and happiness.
Second, a business should not tie itself to another brand. What if that other brand has a public relations nightmare as we’ve seen happen periodically in 2017? Does your company really want to be associated with that?
What to Do
Register your trademark. Register your trademark. And, in case you didn’t hear me the first few times, register your trademark. Why is this important? A business having an unregistered trademark only has rights to that trademark in the region it sells products. A cannabis retailer contacted me recently about a store on the other side of the state using the same or similar trademark. Under common law, trademark rights within a certain territory are based on priority of use of a mark within that territory.
If you are like many in the cannabis industry, you are preparing for the day that its use becomes federally legalized. One strategy to protect your brand is to get copyright protection on your trademark; that’s right ladies and gentlemen, the US Copyright Office is not restricted by the same arcane laws the USPTO must function under.
As a Side Note
Any company who does not have hands on a cannabis plant may register their trademark at the USPTO. For example, a company selling a vaporizer, grow lights, fertilizer, etc., are selling legal products. Get your federal trademarks.
By Brian J. Amos, Ph.D, Charles R. Macedo, M.S No Comments
You’ve bred a new strain of cannabis, or perhaps discovered an excellent new hybrid outgrowing the other plants in your cannabis plot. Can you claim the new plant as yours and legally protect it? The short answer is potentially yes. The long answer follows below:
Since a 1930s’ Act passed by Congress, the US government has permitted a person land, and (ii) asexually reproduces that plant, to apply for a Plant Patent. If granted, the Plant Patent will protect the patent holder’s right to “exclude others from making, using, selling, offering for sale and importing the plant, or any of its parts.” In other words, if you have a Plant Patent, you have a monopoly on that particular plant and its progeny plants, as long as they are asexually reproduced (for example, from cuttings – i.e. a clone). There is a hole in the protection – once you’ve sold or given anyone the plant they can use the seed or pollen from it without your permission.
Originally this sort of coverage was thought to be useful for things like new apple varieties, which are often from spontaneous new mutants found by farmers in their orchards (i.e. “cultivated land”). But is it possible this coverage can be extended to cannabis plants? The answer is yes. Unlike the traditional refusal of the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) to register “offensive” or “disparaging” trademarks on moral grounds, US patent law does not have any well-established “morality exception.” And, indeed, Plant Patents have already been issued for cannabis strains. In December 2016, US Plant Patent No. 27,475 was issued for a cannabis plant called “Ecuadorian Sativa.” This plant is said to be distinct in its exceptionally high level of a particular terpene (limonene) at levels of 10 to 20 times the usual range, and is a single variety of a cross between what are commonly named as Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica.
How do you get a Plant Patent? Firstly – a Plant Patent is not automatically granted. The application has to be written correctly, and the USPTO will examine it to determine if your plant is new and distinct (non-obvious) from other known varieties, that it is described as completely as is reasonably possible, and that it has been asexually propagated. In addition, if the plant was “discovered” as opposed to “invented” then the USPTO will need to be shown that it was found in a cultivated area. A plant discovered simply growing wild cannot be patented. If you pass these hurdles, you will have a Plant Patent that lasts for 20 years.
Another type of patent that can protect your new cannabis plant, and much more besides that, is a Utility Patent. Utility Patents have a longer history than Plant Patents in the US and, while they may be harder to obtain, a Utility Patent gives you broader protection than a Plant Patent. A Utility Patent can cover not only the plant itself, but if properly written can also cover parts of the plant, uses of the plant, methods used to create the plant, methods for processing the plant, and even edibles (like brownies) that contain an extract from that plant. If granted, the Utility Patent will protect your right, for 20 years from the date you filed the application, to “exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States.” An additional protection is that if the invention you claim in the patent is a “process,” you can assert the Utility Patent to exclude others from importing into the United States any products made by that process. Of course, given that present U.S. federal law regards cannabis as a DEA Schedule 1 drug, this importation blocking right is currently irrelevant. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that utility patents have a 20-year term, and Federal law may shift during that time.
Utility Patents are harder to obtain than Plant Patents. The USPTO will examine your application to determine whether what you are claiming protection on (for example: plants, cells, methods or processes) is new and non-obvious, does not cover a naturally occurring product or process, and is fully described. The simple description used in a Plant Patent is not enough for the more rigorous description needed in a Utility Patent. In addition, meeting the “enablement requirement” of a Utility Patent may require you to have the plant strain deposited with a recognized depository which will maintain that specimen plant – and you must agree that the public is permitted to access that deposit if a Utility Patent is granted to you.
So has the US government granted any patents on cannabis plants? Yes it has, multiple patents. A recent example is US Utility Patent No. 9,095,554 granted to Biotech Institute LLC (Los Angeles), which covers hybrid cannabis plants of a particular type with a CBD content of greater than 3%, as well as methods of breeding or producing them. Biotech Institute was also granted claims in the same Utility Patent for cannabis extracts from those plants, and edibles containing the extract. In this case, the plant samples were deposited with the NCIMB, which is a recognized depository in Aberdeen, Scotland. It should be noted that while the depository has to be internationally recognized, it does not have to be in the US. Another corporation, GW Pharma Ltd. (a UK firm), was early in the game and, according to USPTO records, has more than 40 U.S. Utility Patents issued relating to cannabis in some form or another, the earliest dating back to 2001.
Plant Variety Protection Act
A third type of protection is potentially available under the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) if you breed a new cannabis plant by sexual reproduction. Colloquially, this protection is more often known as “breeder’s rights” and the USDA administers it. This right is not mutually exclusive with other protections – in 2001 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that that sexually reproduced plants eligible for protection under the PVPA are also eligible for Utility Patents.
In theory, obtaining a PVPA certificate is a relatively straightforward procedure for seed reproduced plants, which are new, distinct, uniform and stable. If you are granted a PVP certificate it will last for 20 years from the grant date. You can bring a civil action against someone who sells, offers for sale, delivers, ships or reproduces the covered plant. So have any PVPA Certificates been issued for new cannabis strains? We have reviewed the USDA published certificates for the last two years and have not found any. Why is this? One obstacle may be what happens after you file your application. The US code governing these certificates states that a seed sample “will be deposited and replenished periodically in a public repository.” However, the government body that administers the PVPA, the USDA, specifically requires that all applicants submit a seed sample of at least 3,000 seeds with an 85% or more germination rate within 3 months of filing the application. Sending cannabis seeds in the mail to a federal agency – that’s a deterrent given current uncertainty. Ironically, the location that the seeds must be sent to is Fort Collins in Colorado, a state where cannabis has been decriminalized. The USDA’s published PVPA guidance describes courier delivery of the seed sample to the Fort Collins repository, but does not mention hand delivery of the seed samples. We contacted the seed depository and were informally told that seed samples can be deposited by hand delivery – but this still entails handing over to a federal agency actual seeds of a plant which is a DEA Schedule 1 drug. In any event, no PVPA Certificates that have yet been issued for new cannabis strains. It is possible that a new federal administration might deschedule cannabis, permitting an easier route to PVPA coverage. But for the present at least, PVPA protection may be hard to obtain.
The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of Amster, Rothstein & Ebenstein, LLP, or its clients. Nothing in this article is to be construed as legal advice or as a substitute for legal advice.
Patent litigation can be costly; the median cost can be more than $3 million. Even as the owner of a patent, you should explore all options before deciding to file an infringement suit. Litigation should be your last resort, even if your lawyer is convinced you can win. Winning a patent lawsuit is not likely your true goal. Remind your confident lawyer that the stronger your case, the greater your options.
Patent litigation is expensive and distracting for everyone. The expense is astronomical. A recent survey by the American Intellectual Property Law Association, “2017 Report of the Economic Survey,” stated that the median cost to litigate a patent case is $3,000,000. In addition to the out-of-pocket costs, there are the distractions that keep you from running your business. Patent litigation means years of endless meetings, depositions, document productions, and days in court.
Patent litigation is also uncertain. Like my 92-year-old father who recently was cut off on the highway. He chased down the young guy at a red light, jumped out and pounded on the guy’s window, and said. “ONE of us is getting his ASS kicked.” Patent litigation is the same; someone is getting their ass kicked. Many surprises can develop in a patent case leaving the outcome a question.
As cannabis-related businesses grow and enter the business main stream, patent litigation will increase. More businesses will get patents. Patents are valuable to businesses: they protect margins, protect market share and increase the asset value of the business. They do this by preventing competition.
The winds of change are blowing, as I read the article by Walters, G. “What a Looming Patent War Could Mean for the Future of the Marijuana Industry.” The article referenced United States Patent No. 9,095,554, stating:
“On August 4, 2015, US officials quietly made history by approving the first-ever patent for a plant containing significant amounts of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, according to the patent’s holders, their lawyers, and outside experts in intellectual property law.”
At first, this made me acutely aware that we are on the threshold of a brave new world, where legalized cannabis is driving great changes in the way we look at a now-legitimate industry.
Then, I had a little chuckle when I read the words of a longtime cannabis activist:
“It’s going to be a mess,” said Tim Blade, a longtime grower and activist who founded California’s annual Emerald Cup cannabis competition. “Marijuana growers developing new varieties are going to have to spend a lot of money on attorneys.”
It’s clear Mr. Blake was starting to see through the haze of an unregulated industry that’s been under the radar until now. And what he saw was going to be a real buzz-kill. So how can you avoid litigation?
Both sides of the lawsuit will suffer. Typically, litigation should be avoided if at all possible. The good news is there are alternatives. You can take advantage of your patents without suing for infringement.
By knowing what you want, you can then know the options you have.The Myth About Patent Litigation
Before we explore alternatives, you may find some comfort in the fact that about 90% of patent suits are settled; (see Pridham, D. “The Patent Litigation Lie”, found in Forbes. Of those not settled, only 1% to 5% are litigated, (see LaBelle, M. “Against Settlement of (Some) Patent Cases” found in Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, 2014.) The cases not settled and not litigated are concluded through summary judgment or other motions prior to trial. But, even though only 1% to 5% make it to trial, getting to settlement or other non-trial resolutions is still uncertain, expensive and distracting.
Avoiding Patent Trials
Options open up when you understand what you want, and what you are willing to accept. First, you must know what you want to achieve, what you will sacrifice and how that will affect the accused infringer. Maybe you want to put the accused infringer out of business. You might be satisfied if they changed their product. You may want then to pay for their infringement, or only sell in certain geographic areas. By knowing what you want, you can then know the options you have.
Talk to the accused infringer and discuss your position and listen to theirs. You may be able to come to terms. I represented a client who was faced with asserting their patents against a competitor. The product was a huge success, and the patent was very strong. The competitor was clearly cornered, and like any cornered animal, it had no alternative but to fight. But there was an alternative. The client realized this and offered the competitor a different design. Not as good, but acceptable. The two agreed to the re-design, saving both millions in litigation costs and giving both certainty in the outcome.To avoid the loss of the patent, the owner decided to license, rather than sue, infringers.
Work out a license. As the patent owner, you have the ability to grant others the right to use your invention, for a fee or other terms. You define the terms and allow the accused infringer to continue their activities, or a variation of them. You can limit sales to certain industries, geographic areas, customer size, charge a royalty, allow for a specific time period to continue selling, etc. You can even cross-license technology with the accused infringer.
A client had a very successful product, but it was protected by a weak patent. Weak because others could challenge the patent and likely win. To avoid the loss of the patent, the owner decided to license, rather than sue, infringers. That allowed the owner to remain in control of the patent and receive a stream of income from the licensees. The licensed parties were limited to geographic areas, and not permitted to expand beyond them.
Agree to have an independent third-party mediator consider your case. Mediation is an opportunity to have one or more independent mediators review the evidence and provide a decision. Every aspect of the process is agreed-upon by the participants. The parties can agree to the type of evidence that can be presented, the length of time of the mediation, the number of witnesses if any, the effect of any decision, whether evidence can be used later in a trial, whether the proceeding is confidential, whether the decision is advisory, etc.Getting the full value from a patent doesn’t always require litigation
At a minimum, mediation gives everyone an independent view of the case. This independent view can lead to more informed negotiations. It can show both parties what an independent evaluator considers the strengths and weaknesses of each side’s case.
A variation of mediation is a mock trial. Again, the parties can set the rules. The difference is the Mock Trial would use actual jurors to hear each side’s case, normally a very short summary. This summary can take the form of a closing argument, brief testimony from key witnesses, or the reading of their statements. Mock trials are usually used to give the parties an idea of what a typical jury thinks, and help the parties better understand their respective positions.
Getting the full value from a patent doesn’t always require litigation. Historically, only a tiny fraction of patents are litigated. To avoid litigation as a patent owner, keep the lines of communication open with the accused infringer. Think about your actual goal. It’s rarely winning a lawsuit (that’s the goal of a lawyer, not a business person). Your goal is more likely a beneficial result that business people will both understand; a result that works for both of you.
In the first two installments of this three-part series, we explored the reasons why cannabis breeders and growers should adopt a strong IP strategy and discussed the types of patent protection that they should consider. In this final installment, we examine trademark protection for new cannabis varieties and the unique trademark issues currently facing the cannabis industry.
What is a trademark and what does it really get me?
A trademark is a visual feature of some sort, such as a word, phrase, or symbol, which is used to identify a company’s goods and to distinguish those goods from the goods of a competitor. Like a patent, a trademark is effectively an exclusionary right, meaning that it gives the owner the right to exclude others from using the same mark, or a mark that is confusingly similar, in connection with the same type of goods. The test for determining whether a competitor’s mark infringes upon your trademark is whether there is a likelihood of confusion in the mind of consumers over the source of the goods. Put another way, the test is whether a consumer is likely to be confused into believing that your competitor’s goods are actually associated with your company.
How long does this exclusionary right last? So long as certain requirements are met, a trademark can last forever. While a patent that protects a new cannabis variety will expire in 20 years, a trademark that also covers that strain can be maintained forever, which allows patents and trademarks to be used together to offer both stronger and longer lasting protection over a new cannabis variety.
How do I get a trademark?
Trademarks exist under both state and federal law. In many states, to obtain common law trademark protection, one does not need to file anything with a government entity – you simply need to use the mark (e.g., the word or logo) in connection with your company’s goods and use a “TM” in conjunction with the mark. However, the protections afforded by such a common law mark are relatively limited, so it is generally advisable to register the mark with the state and/or federal government in order to strengthen the exclusionary rights. Along the same lines, federal registration offers certain advantages over state registration, such as the right to use the mark nationwide and the right to challenge infringers of the mark in federal court.
To register a trademark, breeders and growers need to file a trademark application with the relevant government entity – the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for a federal mark or various state government offices for state marks. For both state and federal trademark registrations, an applicant typically must demonstrate that 1) he/she is the first to use and register the mark for the type of goods at issue, 2) that he/she is actually using the mark in commerce or has intent to do so, and 3) that the mark is distinctive. Of these three requirements, proving distinctiveness is often the one that gives applicants the most difficulty.
A mark is “distinctive” if it is capable of identifying the source of a particular good. Because of this requirement, a brand name that is generic or merely describes the goods, such as “Large Bud Cannabis Plants,” is often less desirable because it is less distinctive and thus may be difficult to register. Conversely, a brand name that is “arbitrary” or “fanciful,” such as “Moose Foot Cannabis,” is often more distinctive and therefore may be easier to register, generally making it a more desirable choice as a brand name. This issue of distinctiveness is something that cannabis growers and breeders should keep in mind as they develop a branding strategy for their new varieties.
Unique trademark issues for the cannabis industry
Like almost every aspect in the cannabis industry, there are some unique trademark issues that breeders and growers must contend with. With regard to federal registration, the USPTO will currently not allow registration of any trademark for cannabis products that are illegal under federal law. However, that does not mean that every cannabis-related product cannot obtain any federal trademark protection. The reason for this is that a federal trademark registration is tied to specific types of goods that are being sold under the mark, so the ability to register a desired brand name will depend on what type of goods are covered by the trademark.
To that end, a mark that covers actual cannabis products (like plants or edibles) cannot currently be federally registered even if the mark does not actually include the word cannabis. For example, a breeder likely could not federally register the brand name “River’s Edge Farms” for the sale of cannabis plants and plant parts. However, a mark that covers products that are related to the cannabis industry may be allowable – even if it references cannabis –if the goods being sold under the mark are not themselves illegal under federal law. For example, “Pot Maximizer,” a trademark name for a grow light that is being sold to cannabis growers, could be federally registered since it is not illegal to sell a grow light.
Under current federal law, which prohibits the cultivation and sale of cannabis plants and their parts, a federal trademark registration is certainly not currently available for new cannabis varieties. However, this does not mean that trademark registration for new cannabis varieties is impossible. Most states with legalized cannabis will allow registration of state trademarks for cannabis products (e.g., Washington, Oregon, Colorado).
Further, since branding is a long-term strategy it is important for growers and breeders to keep the requirements for federal registration in mind when adopting a branding strategy to ensure they can obtain federal protection for their current brand names if and when cannabis becomes federally legal.
The bottom line…
Despite the fact that there are currently some unique trademark issues for cannabis growers and breeders, trademark protection can be a very valuable asset that both increases the level of protection and extends it beyond what can be obtained through a patent alone. As such, breeders and growers should adopt a branding strategy for their new varieties that attempt to maximize trademark protections for those varieties, both now and in the future.
Breeders and growers should select brand names that are sufficiently distinctive to meet the requirements of both federal and state trademarks. Right now, they will likely need to focus on state trademark rights by applying for state trademark registrations where available and by making sure that they are treating the mark as a brand name of their company (e.g., using a “TM” after their marks). However, they should also keep a close eye on the status of federal registration laws so that they can apply for federal registration of their marks when it becomes available.
Additionally, as discussed in prior articles, growers and breeders should also be seeking to maximize patent protection for their new cannabis strains so that they can use that protection in addition to trademarks to create a stronger IP position. Cannabis growers and breeders who adopt such a comprehensive strategy now could reap huge rewards down the road, especially if (or when) cannabis becomes federally legal, either at the medical or recreational level.
Legal disclaimer: The material provided in this article is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. The opinions expressed herein are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of the firm or any individual attorney. The provision of this information and your receipt and/or use of it (1) is not provided in the course of and does not create or constitute an attorney-client relationship, (2) is not intended as a solicitation, (3) is not intended to convey or constitute legal advice, and (4) is not a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a qualified attorney. You should not act upon any such information without first seeking qualified professional counsel on your specific matter.
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