Tag Archives: publication

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.

The First Map of the Cannabis Genome

By Aaron G. Biros
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Sunrise Genetics, Inc., the parent company for Hempgene and Marigene, announced last week they have successfully mapped the cannabis genome. The genome map was presented at the 26th Annual Plant and Animal Genome Conference in San Diego, CA during the panel “Cannabis Genomics: Advances and Applications.”

According to CJ Schwartz, chief executive officer of Sunrise Genetics, the full genome map will allow breeders to develop strains using DNA sequence information to complement phenotyping. “In this way a breeding program can be guided by the breeder versus blindly as it is for just pheno-hunting,” says Schwartz. “At the DNA level, we can identify what version of a set of genes a plant contains, and make predictions as to the phenotype, without ever growing the plant. As we make more and more gene markers, we have more genes to track, and breeding becomes more rapid, efficient and precise.” Schwartz says this is essential for breeding stable, repeatable plants. “A commercial strain will be grown in different environments, with solid genetics, the phenotype will mostly stay true, a term we call Genetic Penetrance.”

Ancestry-painted chromosomes for marijuana Image: Chris Grassa / Sunrise Genetics

Determining a plant’s DNA can be extremely valuable and completing the map of the genome now makes this more precise. It can serve as a point of proof, according to Schwartz, providing evidence of lineage in a breeding project and confirming the uniqueness and identity of a strain. The genome map can also allow breeders to select specific genes to develop custom strains. And in addition to all that, it provides legal protection. “Knowing your plants DNA code is the first step to being able take action so no one else can protect it,” says Schwartz. “Well documented evidence in the development of a customized strains is essential to maintaining control of your plant and keeping those you distrust (big pharma) away, many of which have minimal interest in the whole plant anyhow.”

CJ Schwartz, chief executive officer of Sunrise Genetics

Schwartz says this project took them roughly 18 months to wrap up. “One of the biggest problems was just finding the right plants to grow,” says Schwartz. “In addition we used some emerging technologies and those had some challenges of their own.” According to Schwartz, a key aspect in all this was finding the right collaborators. They ended up working with CBDRx and the plant biology department at the University of Minnesota, where a DEA-licensed lab has been researching cannabis since 2002. “George Weiblen’s group at UM has been working on Cannabis for over a decade,” says Schwartz. “During that time they did repeated selfing to make highly inbred marijuana and hemp lines. The lines were instrumental in deterring the physical order of the genes.”

Ancestry-painted chromosomes for hemp Image: Chris Grassa / Sunrise Genetics

After finishing up some experiments, they expect to get the genome map published on public domain in less than a year, opening up their research to the general public and allowing breeders and growers to use their data. “This will be a very significant publication,” says Schwartz. “The genome assembly allows for the assimilation of all the currently incompatible Cannabis genome sequence datasets from academia and private companies,” says Schwartz. “Joining datasets from 1000s of strains, and from every continent, will generate an essential public resource for cannabis researchers and aficionados alike.” With a tool like this, we can discover the genes that help produce desirable traits. “This project is a major accomplishment for cannabis, bringing it on par with other important crops, providing a scientific tool to unravel the secrets of this incredibly versatile plant,” says Schwartz.

Sunrise Genetics is assisting cannabis businesses in evaluating strains and developing breeding programs, working with a number of customers currently to develop strains for many different specific traits. “We have the expertise to help select parental strains and guide the selection process at each generation using genotype and phenotype information,” says Schwartz. “Essentially we are bringing all the tools any modern plant breeder would use for improving strawberries to cannabis.”

Marguerite Arnold

Mainstream Media Picks Up On Cannabis

By Marguerite Arnold
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Marguerite Arnold

The British online newspaper, The Guardian, has just begun to cover cannabis. The regular feature, part of their “society” section, is clearly attempting to cover cannabis a bit more consistently and regularly as the California rec market begins to gain (legal) steam.

The writer now helmed to lead this effort is Alex Halperin, a business journalist in the U.S., who landed the gig apparently on the success of Weedweek – a highly cryptic weekly summary blog of mostly U.S.-based industry events and updates.How the Guardian will cover the industry and related issues will be interesting to follow.

This is also not The Guardian’s first foray into the topic. The media outlet, which got its start in the 1800’s in Northern England and expanded dramatically to reach a global digital audience over the past decade, has covered cannabis legalization on a fairly regular basis for the last four years. This new focus also comes at an interesting time. Apart from events in the U.S., Canada is moving forward with recreational this summer. And in Europe, the medical discussion continues apace. That said, it appears the Guardian is going to focus on the U.S. market, at least initially.

It will be interesting to see if that focus shifts (and if they allow other journalists outside of the U.S. to participate in the expanded coverage). While California might well be the largest state economy in general, the Canadian market is already larger and more developed, being regulated nationally across multiple provinces.

Another Mainstream Media Cannabis Column?

This is hardly news. The Guardian is actually treading on ground established already by most of the big news and business publications – including niche publications, blogs and of course, the trade press.

How the Guardian will cover the industry and related issues will be interesting to follow.

The purpose of the column apparently is to spark an “adult conversation” about cannabis – and how it is “changing modern life.” The initial focus on the U.S. market (and California in particular) may have seemed to make sense to a media outlet looking for outrageous stories. But as everyone knows, the U.S. is only one market – and further one still without federal protection.

However, the Guardian is also now competing with other business and mainstream publications that are already in this space. Main Street, the online business ‘zine helmed by Jim Cramer, created one of the first mainstream specialty cannabis sections almost four years ago with the coincidence of the Colorado rec market. Other notable publications and media outlets have significantly increased their coverage of cannabis as well. CNN has been reporting consistently on cannabis topics like legalization and U.S. federal reform efforts for some time now. Business Insider and Forbes have covered ongoing and growing investments and the financial side of things for several years. The Denver Post has its own entirely cannabis-focused subsidiary, The Cannabist.

And as public companies, in both the U.S. and elsewhere have begun to move through the legal thickets of legalization, business-focussed journals and blogs are even beginning to cover cannabis stocks. Starting with Motley Fool and Seeking Alpha (although again, most of this coverage is of companies outside the United States). Specialty publications are also of course, flourishing online, particularly with the beginning of an advertising market that is also beginning to establish itself, albeit around some still thorny regulatory issues.

In general, although the Guardian has a reputation as critical of the British monarchy, with strong left-leaning tendencies, its coverage of the industry has been fairly mainstream – so far at least.

Will that begin to change? And what will really be tackled and covered? And while the ostensible focus is what is going on in the world of cannabis in California (and presumably other foreign markets) could the Guardian’s ostensible new feature also be geared to drive reform at home? The U.K. has yet to even approach the topic of criminalization.