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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.

How to Protect Your Brand From Counterfeiters

By Gail Podolsky
2 Comments

Global counterfeiting is expected to reach $1.82 trillion by 2020.1 Counterfeiting includes, but goes way beyond, fake watches or bogus polo shirts. In fact, no product is safe, including cannabis.

Counterfeiting is insidious; it supports child labor, human trafficking, organized crime, and has been linked to terrorist groups.2 “[C]ounterfeit good sales have been linked to al-Qaeda, FARC, Colombia’s rebel army and paramilitary groups in Northern Island.” 3 The FBI believes that counterfeit goods financed the World Trade Center bombing and the attack on September 11, 2001.4

Counterfeiters and their fake merchandise are typically difficult to locate and remove from the marketplace. Currently, we are seeing a proliferation of counterfeiting in the cannabis industry. Cannabis companies must consider the impact that counterfeit products have on their brand and goodwill. It is vital for cannabis companies to implement strategies to combat counterfeiting.

Typically, companies use trademark laws to combat counterfeiters. However, brand protection for cannabis companies is difficult because trademark laws do not provide the breadth of protection needed to successfully protect and enforce a cannabis company’s brand. Currently, U.S. trademark laws prohibit the registration of cannabis trademarks because selling cannabis violates federal law.5 While the 2018 Farm Bill amended this steadfast rule slightly, it only applies in limited circumstances, i.e., when the cannabis product contains less than 0.3% THC.6 As a result, cannabis companies are forced to seek protection through indirect registration, namely filing for goods and services that are not cannabis-related, such as clothing, publications or medical services. Indirect registrations are not enough to combat counterfeiters successfully.

Fortunately, there is another avenue that cannabis companies should be using to protect and enforce their brands against counterfeiters — obtaining copyright registrations for the company’s logo, product packaging and, if appropriate, company name. Copyright protection extends to a protectable work regardless of whether the copyright is in an illegal work or the copyright owner uses its copyright for an illegal purpose.7 Moreover, if there is pending or prospective litigation, a brand owner may request special handling of a copyright application to obtain expedited processing.8 If the application meets all the requirements for registration, special handling will result in the brand owner obtaining a copyright registration in about a week.9 Trademark registrations, on the other hand, typically take at least five months to obtain.

Once a company receives a copyright registration, the Copyright Act provides unique and important avenues for relief against counterfeiters.10 For example, a brand owner may obtain an ex parte seizure order, which allows the company to enter the counterfeiter’s premises, without notice, and seize the counterfeit products, business records, financial information relating to the counterfeit operation, customer and vendor lists, and bank account information.11 A brand owner may also obtain injunctive relief — a court order prohibiting the counterfeiter from buying, selling, and advertising counterfeit products — and freeze the counterfeiter’s bank accounts.12

People often say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, in the counterfeiting context, imitation can be lethal to your company.A cannabidiol (CBD) company recently used its copyright registrations to stop counterfeiters from advertising and selling counterfeit CBD gummies and oils. The CBD company obtained an ex parte seizure order, injunction and asset freeze, and obtained a $5 million judgment against the counterfeiters.13

Litigation is a valuable and effective tool in fighting counterfeiting. It helps protect the company’s goodwill, enhances consumer confidence and increases the company’s revenues. There are other tools that should be used to combat counterfeiting.

Companies must diligently watch their vendors, distributors, and customers for bad actors. Your vendor agreements should include provisions allowing regular audits and inspections. Your distribution agreements should prohibit distributors from selling outside their territory and engaging in price arbitrage. Your customers should be prevented from selling your products in smaller units. Having unique packaging with holograms will also assist in reducing counterfeits as the packaging is harder to replicate. An effective public relations campaign that includes educating your customers and the industry on the harmful effects of buying counterfeit cannabis products is also a very effective tool.

People often say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, in the counterfeiting context, imitation can be lethal to your company. Counterfeit cannabis products can be subpotent, superpotent or contaminated. Having these dangerous products advertised under your brand in identical packaging can have dire consequences.

If you are not currently experiencing a counterfeiting problem, you likely will. It is important to be proactive and find attorneys that have experience combatting counterfeiters in the cannabis industry to help protect your brand and company.


References

  1. Global Brand Counterfeiting Report 2018-2020 – ResearchAndMarkets.com, AP News (May 15, 2018), https://www.apnews.com/ef15478fa38649b5ba29b434c8e87c94.
  2. Colleen Jordan Orscheln, Bad News Birkins: Counterfeit in Luxury Brands, 14 J. Marshall Rev. Intell. Prop. L. 249, 259 (2015).
  3. Id. at 260.
  4. Id.
  5. Examination of Marks for Cannabis and Cannabis-Related Goods and Services after Enactment of the 2018 Farm Bill, USPTO (May 2, 2019), https://www.uspto.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Exam%20Guide%201-19.pdf.
  6. Id.
  7. See, e.g., Flava Works, Inc. v. Gunter, 689 F.3d 754, 756 (7th Cir. 2012); Dream Games of Ariz., Inc. v. PC Onsite, 561 F.3d 983 (9th Cir. 2009); Mitchell Bros. Film Grp. v. Cinema Adult Theater, 604 F.2d 852, 855 (5th Cir. 1979); Big Daddy Games, LLC v. Reel Spin Studios, LLC, No. 3:12-cv-00449, 2013 WL 12233949, at *16–17 (W.D. Wis. Apr. 10, 2013).
  8. Special Handling, U.S. Copyright Office, https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-special.html (last visited November 20, 2019).
  9. Id.
  10. See 17 U.S.C. § 503(a)(3).
  11. Id.
  12. Id.
  13. See Global Widget, LLC v. A.R.T. Wholesale LLC, No. 1:19-cv-02136, 2019 WL 3281321 (N.D. Ga. May 16, 2019); Global Widget, LLC v. A.R.T. Wholesale LLC, No. 1:19-cv-02136, 2019 WL 3244489 (N.D. Ga. July 18, 2019).

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.

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 4

By Richard Naiberg
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Richard Naiberg

Editor’s Note: This is the third 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 in Part 4, below, Naiberg discusses trademarks and how cannabis businesses should go about protecting their brand identity in Canada.


Trademarks: Protections For Brands And Goodwill

Cannabis businesses must not only protect their investments in their technical creations, but also must protect their brand identities. A cannabis producer can invest heavily in making a desirable, high-quality product, and can advertise and sell this product so as to generate customer interest and goodwill, but if the customer cannot distinguish the producer’s product from that of its competitor, this investment is for not. Trademarks become unenforceable when they are no longer distinctive.

A trademark provides its owner with the right to have the Court stop another entity from using the trademark, or using a similar trademark in a way that confuses the public. When the trademark is infringed, the Court can also make a monetary award in favor of the trademark owner.

Trademarks are identifiers of a particular source of manufacture and they can take virtually any form. Trademarks can be words, phrases, symbols, names, designs, letters, numbers, colors, three-dimensional shapes, holograms, moving images, modes of packaging, sounds, scents, tastes, textures, or any other distinguishing element. What a trademark cannot be is a mere descriptor of the goods or services themselves because such a trademark would prevent other entities from describing their products in their ordinary terms.

Trademarks can be registered, but they do not have to be. In choosing a trademark, the cannabis producer must balance competing impulses: the desire to choose a trademark that is suggestive of the product itself so as to have an immediate meaning to customers without need of an expensive marketing campaign; and the desire to coin a unique and striking trademark which is instantly eye-catching and memorable, but which must be advertised before customers can understand the product to which it refers.

For example, a depiction of cannabis leaf or a word that plays on the ordinary terms used to refer to cannabis will not make a strong mark that can be enforced against those who adopt something similar. On the other hand, a coined word, such as “Kodak”, may have no independent association with cannabis but, after a time, use of this mark in association with a cannabis product can create a very strong mark with a wider ambit of exclusivity.

All that said, even a very suggestive mark can serve as a trademark where the use of the mark is so longstanding and ubiquitous that the suggestive mark acquires a secondary meaning as an indicator of its source of manufacture. Cannabis producers can and should also consider adopting specific colors, scents or tastes of their products as trademarks, where appropriate.

Trademarks become unenforceable when they are no longer distinctive. For this reason, trademark owners must keep abreast of any use of trademarks similar to their own by third parties, and must act quickly to either license such uses or to restrain them.Cannabis businesses have been very busy applicants for trademarks. More than 1700 such applications are now on file, though a comparative few have yet been registered. 

Trademarks can be registered, but they do not have to be. When a company’s product or service becomes known to its customers or potential customers with reference to a mark through ordinary business use, a trademark has been created.

Registration does however provide certain advantages. Under the amendments to the Trademarks Act coming in 2019, a registered trademark can be obtained for without any proof of use or goodwill.  By contrast, and as noted above, an unregistered mark must be used and possess goodwill before it can be said to exist at all. A registered trademark provides protection for its owner across Canada. An unregistered trademark can only be enforced in the geographical area in which its owner has established its reputation. A registered trademark is protected from those who use it in a manner that is likely to depreciate the goodwill of the trademark. An unregistered trademark only protects against consumer confusion.

Registration under the Trademarks Act also makes it an offence to sell goods or services on a commercial scale in association with another’s registered trademark, or to traffic in infringing labels. Further, a trademark owner can request that the import or export of such goods in Canada be arrested. No similar rights accrue for unregistered trademarks.

Finally, a registered trademark is published at the CIPO web site, providing notice of its existence to new market entrants before these entrants commit to using a similar trademark. Unregistered marks are not always easily discovered and a new market entrant may commit to a mark before having any opportunity to discover that it is the unregistered trademark of another.

Registering a trademark is straightforward. The applicant prepares an application that identifies the applicant, the trademark and the goods and/or services with which the trademark is being used or is intended to be used. Once satisfied that the application complies with the Trademarks Act, CIPO publishes the application to allow potential opponents of the registration to come forward. If there is no opposition, or if an opposition proceeding is brought and dismissed, the trademark is issued.

There is an interaction between the Trademarks Act and the Plant Breeder’s Rights Act. As discussed above, when a denomination has been adopted for a plant variety under the Plant Breeder’s Rights Act, nothing similar can be adopted or registered as a trademark. This is so other traders may use the denomination in their sale of the variety after expiry of the plant breeder’s right.

Cannabis businesses have been very busy applicants for trademarks. More than 1700 such applications are now on file, though a comparative few have yet been registered. Trademark applications in this area are likely to increase further with the coming changes to the Trademarks Act and the removal of the requirement that applicants show use of the trademark prior to registration. Companies will be encouraged to apply for trademarks they may only be considering using, and for any trademarks that they think their competitors may be planning to use. There is some concern that the changes to the Trademarks Act will lead to the rise of trademark trolls.

Before adopting a particular trademark, the producer must do what it can to minimize the likelihood that a third party will assert that the trademark infringes the third party’s prior rights. Searches of Canadian and international trademarks, particularly United States trademarks, are advised. National intellectual property offices, such as CIPO and the United States Patent and Trademark Office, maintain easily searchable databases of registered and applied-for trademarks that should be reviewed. Search professionals can also assist in identifying trademarks that have never been the subject of a trademark application. With the result of the searches in hand, the cannabis producer can determine whether or not to proceed to adopt the contemplated mark and invest in its promotion.


In Part 5, Naiberg will explain how to use a copyright to protect works of creative expression. Stay tuned for more!

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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.

Protecting Your Cannabis Plant IP

By Brian J. Amos, Ph.D, Charles R. Macedo, M.S
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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:

Plant Patents


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.

Utility Patent
 

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.

Notice

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.

Protecting Your Innovative Cannabis Strains With a Strong Intellectual Property Strategy: Part 3 – Trademark Protection for New Cannabis Strains

By Dr. Travis Bliss
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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.