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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!

David Kluft headshot

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

By David Kluft
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David Kluft headshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Protecting Innovative Strains with a Strong Intellectual Property Strategy: Part 1– Why IP & Why now?

By Dr. Travis Bliss
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This three-part series will provide an in-depth look at intellectual property (IP) protection that is available for innovative and new varieties of cannabis. In this first installment, we will examine the reasons why cannabis breeders should adopt a strong IP strategy and look briefly at the types of IP that they should be considering. In the second and third pieces, we will look at the types of IP protection that can be used to protect innovative cannabis varieties and the unique IP issues the cannabis industry faces right now. Taken together, these articles will provide insight into IP strategies that cannabis breeders and growers can employ today to help prepare for the day that cannabis becomes legal nationally.

Why should I use IP to protect my cannabis varieties?

First and foremost, as the cannabis industry continues to move from a small, tight-knit community of breeders and growers into a ‘big-business’ industry, IP is the only way for breeders to protect the investment of time, energy and money that they put into developing new and innovative strains of cannabis. At a recent cannabis growing conference, one sentiment felt among numerous breeders was a feeling of frustration– stemming from the fact that they had spent many years developing new varieties of cannabis and, now that the industry is exploding, they are not getting recognition for all that effort. The way to avoid this issue is to protect novel varieties with IP to ensure that you are given proper credit for all of your hard work.

Moreover, an examination of industries that have strong similarities to the cannabis industry, such as other plant-based industries and ‘vice’ industries, provides compelling evidence that IP will become a main driving force in the cannabis industry as it continues to mature. For example, the fruit and hops industries have been relying upon strong plant patent and trademark protection for many years. The extremely popular Honeycrisp apple is a patented variety and the Amarillo hops variety (officially called ‘VGXP01’) is protected by both a U.S. Plant Patent and a federally registered trademark. Similarly, the alcohol and tobacco industries rely upon strong trademark and branding strategies, with many consumers being extremely brand-particular.

Additionally, there is strong evidence that the cannabis industry is primed for intellectual property protection. Since long before cannabis was legalized, consumers who were buying cannabis on the black market often sought out a particular variety from their dealer, something that becomes more prevalent as the industry continues to mature.

Why is now the time to think about IP?

First, the relevant governmental bodies have now provided some clarity as to the types of IP protection that can, and cannot be obtained for cannabis. For example, it is now clear that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) will issue patents that cover new cannabis plant varieties and related innovations, such as novel growing methods. In fact, the first U.S. Plant Patent that covers a novel cannabis strain, called ‘Ecuadorian Sativa’, issued in late 2016.

Similarly, though federal trademark registration is not currently available if the product being protected is a cannabis product that is illegal under federal law. Federal trademark registration may be available to protect products related to the cannabis industry that are not themselves federally illegal (e.g., grow lights, fertilizer, etc.). Many states with legalized cannabis will grant state trademark registrations for cannabis products regardless of whether the products are viewed as illegal under current federal law. With this increased clarity, companies can now begin to formulate a comprehensive IP strategy that ties together the various types of IP protection.

Additionally, cannabis breeders and growers should look to adopt an IP strategy now because there are certain time bars that exist that may result in loss of rights if they wait. For example, as we will discuss in Part 2 of the series, patent protection can only be sought if the variety to be patented was not sold, offered for sale, or otherwise made publicly available more than one year before the patent application is filed. So if a breeder chooses to wait to seek patent protection for a new variety, the ability to ever get that protection may be lost.

The bottom line is that, to solidify their place in the market, cannabis breeders and growers should be formulating an IP strategy sooner rather than later. Those forward-thinking growers and breeders that adopt a comprehensive IP strategy up front will gain a distinct competitive advantage over competing growers and breeders down the road – an advantage that will become even more important if and when large corporations begin to move into the cannabis space. Those companies that have strong brands in place will be better equipped to survive and thrive in the face of pressure from legal teams at larger companies.

The next two installments of this series will examine the specifics of the types of IP protection that can be sought and the unique issues that the cannabis industry faces with each of them.

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.

Marijuana Matters

Patent Options Available for Breeding Cannabis

By David C. Kotler, Esq.
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Patent No.: 909554. Date of patent: August 4, 2015. Years from now, historians and academics may look back on this patent number and date as a watershed mark in the evolution of legal cannabis. Feel free to read the 147 pages of the patent documents but, in short, it “leads to many innovations, provides compositions and methods for breeding, production, processing and use of specialty cannabis.” It was the first time that the U.S. Patent Office (USPTO) had issued a patent for a plant containing significant amounts of THC. One USPTO spokesman recently discussed with a journalist that “there are no special statutory requirements or restrictions applied to marijuana plants.” The following is a broad, and I mean really broad, overview of the options available to protect intellectual property within the cannabis species and strain realm.

Generally speaking, to be patent eligible, an invention must be useful, it must be new, it cannot be obvious and it must be described in a manner so that people of skill in the relevant specialty can understand what the invention is, make it and use it without engaging in undue experimentation. In terms of cannabis, essentially the breeder must have created a new and non-obvious strain over what already exists that is useful such as being highly resistant to molds or having a specific concentration of CBD.

Breeders potentially have a number of options available to them, despite the common belief otherwise. In the U.S. there are five types of intellectual property protection that breeders can obtain for new plant varieties or their use of clones:

One may seek protection for seeds and tubers, known as Plant Variety Protection. A tuber is essentially a swelled root that forms a storage organ. The Plant Variety Protection Office provides this protection. To apply for Plant Variety Protection, the applicant submits information to show that the variety is new, distinct, uniform and stable.

For asexually propagated plants except for tubers, a Plant Patent may be sought. These are sought through the USPTO. This is relatively inexpensive compared with a Utility Patent covering the genetics.

Trade secrets are often used to protect inventions that will not be commercially available or cannot be reverse engineered. For example, if a new strain is invented but is only commercially available in its final form, trade secret protection may be the best form. The most important thing to remember is that a company must follow a strict set of requirements to keep the trade secret confidential.

The last patent type protection could be through a Utility Patent. A Utility Patent can be issued for any type of plant showing its utility. These are issued by the USPTO. Seeking and obtaining a Utility Patent is expensive and complex.

In addition to Patent Protection, breeders may seek Contractual Agreements restricting the use of the clones (i.e. a material use agreement). The parameters that a breeder wishes to craft can essentially be crafted into the language of any type of agreement that is drafted to memorialize the relationship and terms between the parties.

A few broad-stroke items to keep in mind with regard to patents particularly relative to the patenting of cannabis strains and the like: First, is the passage of the America Invents Act which among other changes allowed for the U.S. to transition from a First-to-Invent patent system to a system where priority is given to the first inventor to file a patent application. Second, there are the potential bars based on different types of prior use.

Any discussion about the foregoing topic should necessarily include the question: Is it really good for the cannabis industry and its evolution? The dialogue moves out of one steeped in tradition, lure of trips through mountain passages, and potentially patient benefit or in search of higher quality and into connotations of business law and big businesses sweeping in to take over. It is an expensive process. It may be inevitable. In the meantime, protect yourself as best you can and as you see fit.