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.
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