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What Cannabis Entrepreneurs Need To Know About Intellectual Property

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This is a sponsored post by Larry Sandell of Mei & Mark LLP.

This post was updated on May 22, 2019 to reflect recent policy developments.

Marijuana industry leaders stay busy developing business plans, building brands, inventing technologies, creating supply chains, cultivating new strains, hiring employees, securing funding, and obtaining licenses. But it is essential for cannabis entrepreneurs to understand intellectual property (IP) rights and the benefits they can provide—and, perhaps most importantly, the potential problems that may occur when IP rights are ignored or overlooked for too long.

Because of ongoing federal cannabis prohibition, businesses in this space face additional IP challenges that don’t exist in other industries. This article will give you a quick sense of what you need to know in order to protect your rights.

Fundamentally, the law gives IP owners the right to exclude. Effectively acquired IP rights can give cannabis entrepreneurs the legal footing to prevent competitors from ripping off their brands, their technologies, their designs, and their secrets. In the cannabis space, where the law excluded so many for so long, it may seem untoward to engage in exclusionary practices, but IP is a very different animal than prohibition. As the cannabis industry continues to grow and established companies enter the market, early-acquired IP rights will prove indispensable. Beyond offering market protections and a competitive edge, IP rights can be licensed to generate additional recurring revenue, help attract investment, and enhance valuation for exits.

Without a clear understanding of the myriad types of IP protection available—and the benefits, potential pitfalls, and resource requirements of each—many entrepreneurs view obtaining effective IP protection as a daunting task. And unless an experienced IP attorney is retained, they are not wrong. Nonetheless, IP rights should be considered early and often in any business venture, especially in a nascent industry like this one. Those who procrastinate this critical business task risk permanently forfeiting rights, and may sometimes find IP roadblocks placed in their path by competitors who beat them in a race to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) that they didn’t even know they were competing in.

IP rights vary widely, but are best understood by first considering which aspects of your budding cannabis business that you want to protect—namely: your brand, your technology, your cannabis strains, your designs, or your business secrets.

Protecting Your Brand:

Trademarks identify the source of a product or service, and serve to protect the goodwill and market recognition that a business has developed. Most commonly, a trademark is embodied in the name of a product, service, or business, its logo, or a slogan. Trademarks do not have a set expiration date, but generally remain enforceable so long as they are being used in commerce. However, to maximize rights (and avoid getting sued), it is important to search to make sure your proposed brand is “clear” prior to using it in commerce and, once in use, to effectively control your brand in the marketplace.

Federally Registered Trademarks provide the strongest protection for your brand, and enable you to enforce your trademarks anywhere in the United States. Registration requires both legal “use in commerce” and a lack of “confusingly similar” trademarks in your business area. If you aren’t using your trademark in commerce yet, but intend to do so, an “Intent to Use” (“ITU”) application can preserve your rights until you actually begin legal commercial activity. Federally registered marks are denoted by the ® symbol. Having an experienced trademark attorney file an application on your behalf typically costs $1,000-$1,500, and can help you maximize protections and avoid pitfalls.

Because marijuana is still federally illegal, the requirement for legal “use in commerce” presents a unique challenge for cannabis entrepreneurs seeking federal trademark protection. There are two proven strategies. First, you can trademark around the edges: While federal trademarks on cannabis, itself, may be unavailable, trademarks for most ancillary products and services can be obtained. For example, federal trademark registration is available for products and services supporting consumption and cultivation, and for sales of legal medical herbs.

Second, you can play the long game, and file an ITU claiming a bona fide intent to use a trademark in legal commerce in the future—i.e., anticipating that federal legalization will convert your commercial activity to legal “use in commerce.” For example, the “CANNIBIS CUP” is using this ITU strategy to play the long game. This ITU strategy may be particularly desirable to entrepreneurs who seek to lock down newly minted strain names or other important branding. As long as appropriate extensions of time are filed with the USPTO every six months, an ITU application can survive for three years after the USPTO “examines” the mark. So, playing the long game is a bet that federal legalization will occur in the near future.

The 2018 Farm Bill ostensibly legalized hemp (i.e., cannabis with <0.3% THC) and hemp-derived CBD. Accordingly, in May 2019, the USPTO publicly announced that hemp and hemp-derived CBD products may be eligible for federal trademark registration—at least as far as the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) is concerned. However, the USPTO also indicated that such products, if sold as food, food supplements, medicine, or the like, are subject to regulation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and would not be considered to have legal “use in commerce” unless permitted by the FDA. Thus, until the FDA acts, most hemp products are still not eligible for Federal trademark protection.

State Registered Trademarks: If federal trademark registration is unavailable, it may be worthwhile to consider registering your trademarks in the states where you conduct business. Many states permit some form of state-level trademark registration. It should be noted, however, that a state-level trademark registration may typically only be effectively enforced within the boundaries of the registering state. For example, if you had a California trademark registration, you could not use it to prevent a competitor from using your trademark in Colorado. State registered trademarks may be used to fight “cybersquatters.”

While virtually all states have a “legal use” requirement, such requirement does not prohibit trademark registration in states where cannabis is legal for recreation and/or medical purposes. However, such requirement still means that your business must already be engaged in legal commerce—and is in compliance with relevant state cannabis licensing requirements—before applying for registration. Unfortunately, most states do not allow “intent to use” trademark applications. (Washington State is a notable exception.) Thus, even in a legalization state, a prospective cannabis grower might not be able to begin securing a state-level trademark registration until after she is granted a grow license in that state.

Common Law Trademarks: Even without any registration, your brand, if actually used in commerce, may retain some protection. Common law trademarks are often designated by the TM symbol, which merely signifies that the brand owner thinks that it has a valid trademark. It is, however, notoriously difficult to enforce common law trademarks. Accordingly, businesses that save money on the front end by skipping trademark registration may regret it later if a competitor subsequently tries to rip off their brand.

Copyright Registration for Logos: In addition to trademark protection, brand logos may be protected by copyright law. Through a copyright, a logo may be protected as a work of artistic expression rather than as a brand. While copyright registration is not strictly necessary, it provides for robust enforcement options. Additionally, the US Copyright Office allows you to register copyrights online for a small fee.

Protecting Your Technology:

Utility Patents protect an invention, and grant inventors the right to exclude others from making, using, or selling it for up to 20 years. In the cannabis space, utility patents can protect, for example, growing apparatuses and methods, extraction techniques and chemical compositions, smoking and vaping devices, software, and even plants themselves (see below). Legal use in commerce is not required, but the USPTO carefully examines each patent application to ensure that the claimed invention is adequately described, novel (new), and nonobvious. In the US, a utility patent application must be filed within one year of the first public disclosure or offer for sale of the invention. Entrepreneurs who miss this deadline permanently forfeit their ability to secure a patent. Obtaining a high quality, enforceable patent typically requires retaining an experienced patent attorney to prepare and file the application. This can cost $8,000 and up, depending on complexity of the invention.

Provisionals: Provisional patent applications may be used to delay expending these considerable financial resources for up to one year—often enough time to assess whether your invention has a good shot at commercial success. Essentially, a provisional holds your place in line for 12 months. It can protect your rights if a competitor files for a similar patent or sells a similar product during that time, and can help you avoid missing the one-year deadline for filing after selling or marketing your own invention. Using a provisional application requires filing a corresponding nonprovisional utility application within the 12 months. If a corresponding application is not filed, the provisional simply expires and its contents remain secret. While provisionals have few formal requirements and are sometimes filed by inventors without attorney assistance, cannabis entrepreneurs would be wise to at least consult with an experienced patent attorney before filing to avoid pitfalls that can render a provisional ineffective. Engaging a patent attorney to prepare and file a provisional application can cost around $3,000 and up.

Protecting Your Cannabis Strains:

Utility Patents: The USPTO has confirmed that cannabis plants may be protected by utility patents. To date, issued cannabis utility patents have claimed plants with specific chemical profiles.

Plant Patents: Plant patents are a distinct form of IP protection that protects asexually reproduced plants, and the USPTO has issued at least one cannabis plant patent. Similar to utility patents, plant patents have a life of up to 20 years, and the invented strain must be both new and nonobvious. Additionally, the one-year filing requirement still applies, so a grower loses rights to file for plant patents for any cannabis strain that he sold more than 365 days ago. Finally, growers should be aware that plant patents are sometimes considered to have less value because they are directed to a single plant genome, rendering the right to exclude both narrow and hard to enforce.

Plant Variety Protection Certificates are issued by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and can provide their owners exclusive rights to seeds of a new crop for 20 years. To date, no cannabis certificates have been issued. The reasons are two fold: First, a seed deposit is required, and the USDA, a federal agency, has refused to accept any. Second, certificates protect only new and distinct sexually-reproduced plants that have stable progeny. Many cannabis strains of value are asexually propagated and therefore fall outside of these requirements.

However, following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, the USDA, on April 24, 2019, announced that it now accepts Plant Variety Protection applications of seed-propagated hemp varieties. Thus, cultivators of industrial and CBD-heavy hemp have a newly opened path to protect their IP.

Protecting Your Designs:

Design Patents: Design Patents protect ornamental designs for functional items. For example, while the functional aspects of a vaping device may be protected by a utility patent, the way it looks—or just specific aspects of its look—may be protected by a design patent. Design patents that claim only specific design elements are broader and may be easier to enforce. Cannabis entrepreneurs in the software space should note that design patents are increasingly used to protect GUIs, especially when it comes to animated user interfaces. The same basic rules of utility patents apply to design patents, except that design patents last for 14 years from issuance (rather than 20 years from filing) and provisionals are not available. Retaining an experienced patent attorney to prepare and file a design patent application can cost $1,500 – $2,500, largely depending on the quality of drawings already possessed.

Copyright: Copyright protection can be used to protect all manner of artistic expression, whether on websites, T-shirts, or cannabis-related products. While there is an area of overlap between design patents and copyrights, design patents may (if strategically prepared) be quite broad and therefore easier to enforce.

Protecting Your Business Secrets:

Trade secrets are very different from the other IP types discussed above. Your customer lists, older secret recipes, business plans, and similar proprietary information are often best protected by keeping them secret. Still, there is always a chance that a disgruntled former employee sells or reveals your secrets, an unscrupulous competitor hacks into your computer systems, or a contractor uses your data in an unauthorized manner. Although the law varies, virtually all states offer trade secret protections that can support or compensate you in such situations. Trade secret laws, however, are typically only effective if your business had already taken reasonable steps to protect its proprietary information. An experienced attorney should be counseled to ensure that your trade secret practices are adequate under your state’s law, but uniform best practices include having all employees and contractors sign agreements that outline authorized and unauthorized data uses, having reasonable network security, and never divulging your trade secrets outside of signed NDAs.

Conclusion:

As the cannabis industry continues to grow and attract new market entrants, effectively securing IP rights has become a critical business task. Entrepreneurs who fail to assess and pursue appropriate IP rights early in the business cycle do so at they own peril. While thinking about patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets may not seem as urgent as making payroll and growing your profit margin, failing to promptly secure IP rights may undercut your business in the future, allowing competitors to rip-off the successful aspects of your business.

About the author:

Larry Sandell is a registered patent attorney with Mei & Mark LLP and has a decade of experience in IP law. He focuses his practice on drafting and prosecuting patent and trademark applications, counseling clients on strategic IP matters, litigation, and appellate practice. Larry has a passion for advising start-ups and other innovative companies, and has argued in the U.S. Courts of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit, the Federal Circuit, and D.C. Circuit. In addition to his legal practice, he is the CEO and General Counsel for a start-up medical device company.

Before entering law school in 2005, Larry fought for marijuana law reform, serving as Assistant Director of State Policies for the Marijuana Policy Project. He ran a successful ballot initiative signature drive in Nevada in 2004, putting legalization on the 2006 ballot; worked on Nevada’s 2002 ballot initiative campaign; and coordinated medical marijuana lobbying efforts in state legislatures.

Larry can be reached at [email protected]

ATTORNEY ADVERTISING NOTICE

Please note that this article may be considered attorney advertising in some states. Prior results described on this article do not guarantee similar outcomes in future cases or transactions. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Mei & Mark LLP (818 18th St., NW, Suite 410, Washington, DC 20006), its clients, Marijuana MomentTM LLC, or any of their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

This is a sponsored post by Larry Sandell of Mei & Mark LLP.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

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Number Of Banks Working With Marijuana Businesses Levels Off, Federal Data Shows

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The number of banks and credit unions that service the marijuana industry largely leveled off in the last quarter, according to new federal data released late last week. And that market trend could reflect shifting expectations among financial institutions about the likelihood of Congress approving cannabis banking legislation.

While the House did eventually pass the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would shield banks that accept marijuana business clients from being penalized by federal regulators, that vote happened just five days before the end of the fourth quarter of the federal fiscal year and not prior to the summer recess weeks earlier, as had previously been expected.

Marijuana Moment first reported that a vote was imminent about two weeks prior to the House action.

It’s possible that banks were waiting to see the congressional action before further servicing the market and were disappointed that the Democratic-controlled chamber did not act on the legislation before lawmakers broke for the summer break. Previous quarters have seen significant upticks in the number of banks and credit unions working with marijuana businesses, especially since the end of 2018.

But this last quarter, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) reported that 563 banks and 160 credit unions were serving cannabis companies as of September 30, compared to 553 banks and 162 credit unions at the end of the previous quarter. That’s a small increase for banks and a slight dip for credit unions, signaling a shift in pace as lawmakers work to get the bipartisan banking bill to the president’s desk.

Via FinCEN.

But now that the House has acted, and signals point to the Senate following suit, industry watchers are bullish about getting the key reform across the finish line this Congress.

“I get the sense that people in the financial community are optimistic about the chances of cannabis banking reform happening in the near future from our work with groups like the [American Bankers Association] and [Credit Union National Association] on the SAFE Banking Act,” Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Marijuana Moment.

FinCEN also said that short-term declines in these numbers “may be explained by filers exceeding the 90 day follow-on Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) filing requirement,” a process that banks are mandated to follow in accordance with 2014 cannabis banking guidance issued under the Obama administration.

“Several filers take 180 days or more to file a continuing activity report,” the agency said. “After 90 days, a depository institution is no longer counted as providing banking services until a new guidance-related SAR is received.”

Those caveats were also included in previous quarterly reports that had shown increases in the number of financial institutions working with the cannabis industry, however.

The latest update also contains data on the number of marijuana-related SARs that have been filed, which exceeded 100,000 for the first time as of the quarter’s end. (There appears to be a mistake in the narrative of FinCEN’s report, as it states the numbers reflect SARs filed by the end of June instead of September.)

FinCEN also placed the SARs in one of three categories: marijuana limited, marijuana priority and marijuana termination.

Via FinCEN.

As usual, most (76,203) were considered “marijuana limited,” which refers to cannabis businesses that seem to be operating in compliance with state law, and therefore meet the agency’s standard for being serviceable under existing federal guidelines.

The second largest category was for “marijuana termination” SARs, or marijuana businesses that violated at least one federal enforcement priority or state regulation and so “the financial institution has decided to terminate its relationship with” the firm.

About 7,800 SARs fit the definition of “marijuana priority,” which is defined as a business that “may raise one or more of the red flags” under federal guidelines, or they “may not be fully compliant with the appropriate state’s regulations” and so they’d be under investigation.

Whether the leveling off trend will continue is yet to be seen. However, if the Senate does advance the SAFE Banking Act and it is enacted, advocates expect a surge in banks embracing the cannabis industry. The chair of the Senate Banking Committee has said that his panel will vote on marijuana banking legislation before the year’s end, though he suggested he’d like certain changes from the House-passed version.

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Head Of Nation’s Only Federally Legal Marijuana Farm Develops THC Eye Drops

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The head of the nation’s only federally approved marijuana farm has revealed that he is developing cannabis eye drops to treat glaucoma.

In a podcast interview, pharmacologist Mahmoud ElSohly, director of the University of Mississippi’s Marijuana Research Project, discussed the history of how an eye doctor discovered that cannabis can relieve the interocular pressure associated with glaucoma. But while the THC in the plant treated the symptoms, it also means patients experience the high.

“The best way to treat glaucoma is not to take a drug that will affect your brain, affect your ability to function, the whole rest of your body just to lower the pressure inside the eyes,” ElSohly argued. “The way to do this is to develop, let’s say, eye drops, eye drops from marijuana.”

Both his lab and a separate, unnamed company that licensed the idea are looking into the eye drop possibility, with the company having already begun clinical trials, ElSohly said. It’s a notable advancement because THC is lipophilic, acting like an oil, and so “it doesn’t penetrate into the inner compartments of the eye to lower the pressure.”

“Therefore, only if you take systemically—meaning if you inhale it or swallow it or something—but then you deal with all the side effects of THC,” he said in the interview, which was recorded in February and published this month. “Now we’re developing a pharmaceutical product, and it’s been licensed by the way now, that we take the THC molecule and we modify it in a certain way to allow it to go inside the eye, and once inside, it breaks off and releases THC just in the eye to lower the pressure.”

“You don’t feel any psychological activity, it doesn’t even get into your blood. It’s all localized in the eye,” he said. “We have this product now that is being licensed and being developed as an eye drop.”

Listen to the conversation about the THC eye drops, which begins around 15:40, below: 

“That’s the way to develop pharmaceuticals based on cannabis but not cannabis, based on marijuana but not marijuana,” he added during the appearance on the podcast of anti-legalization organization National Families In Action, for which ElSohly serves as a scientific advisory board member. “That’s the way to do it and develop the medicine.”

The targeted treatment of glaucoma using the novel delivery method that ElSohly described is noteworthy, but it also underscores the potential for the development of other valuable treatment options derived from marijuana that’s being inhibited under prohibition. One barrier that researchers and lawmakers alike have identified is the substandard quality of cannabis produced at ElSohly’s farm.

Currently, the University of Mississippi is the only federally approved source of research-grade marijuana, but scientists have complained about the cannabis supply, which one study found is genetically closer to hemp than products available in state-legal markets. That raises questions about the validity of studies that rely on the government’s marijuana.

The Drug Enforcement Administration said in September that it is taking steps to approve additional marijuana farms beyond ElSohly’s Mississippi operation, three years after the agency initially invited applications for such facilities.

In an earlier podcast segment released in September, ElSohly made a series of remarks that some viewed as reflective of a fundamental misunderstanding of marijuana issues.

The director characterized cannabis containing eight percent THC as “extremely high potency” and expressed confusion as to why individuals would seek out varieties in the commercial market that contain “20 percent or 15 or 18 or any of those high amounts.”

But ElSohly was thinking about marijuana consumption in the context of standardized clinical trials, where individuals would have to consume an entire joint in one sitting in order to compare the effects of a controlled dose with other subjects. Others have pointed out that consumers might prefer higher concentration products because they can achieve the desired effect without having to smoke as much.

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SXSW Announces Two Dozen Marijuana Panels For 2020 Festival

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South by Southwest (SXSW) revealed the festival’s 2020 lineup this week, and it includes 24 panels dedicated exclusively to cannabis issues.

The sessions are part of SXSW’s “Cannabusiness” convergence track, which will invite attendees to learn about “the technological, cultural, financial, legal and political ecosystems that are defining the cannabis-focused enterprises of both today and tomorrow,” according to a description on the event site.

In July, the Austin-based festival announced that it was soliciting panel ideas from the public. More than 150 marijuana-related panel proposals were submitted—more than double the submissions for this year’s event—and SXSW invited individuals to vote on their top choices throughout August. Ultimately, 24 cannabis-focused panels made the final cut, including one that isn’t in the Cannabusiness Track.

Here are some examples that stand out: 

Descheduling Cannabis: Be Careful What You Wish—Leading cannabis industry stakeholders discuss how removing cannabis from the list of federally banned substances could be destructive to the market as it exists today by allowing for a corporatized marijuana model. Panelists including The Arview Group CEO Troy Dayton will address how descheduling could “decimate the dispensary system and see the destruction of millions of dollars of investment.”

Duty Bound: Why the DoD Should Embrace Cannabis—Active duty military members and veterans stand to greatly benefit from marijuana, this panel argues, by “alleviating both mental and physical traumas” while at the same time saving tax dollars. “During our panel we’ll dive into the specific individual, national, and even global benefits of allowing for active duty cannabis use in the US military,” a description states.

Featured Session: Cat Packer—Top Los Angeles marijuana regulator Cat Packer will talk about her role in the “licensing and regulation of commercial cannabis activity” as well as managing “the implementation of the City’s cannabis related policies and programs.”

Cannabis in Canada: What We’ve Learned—Panelists from Leafly, Spiritleaf, Tilray, 48North and Hill+Knowlton will discuss the impacts of marijuana legalization in Canada, including talks about the impact on local economies and industry innovation.

Can Social Equity Help Heal The War On Drugs?—This panel will look at the disproportionate impact of cannabis prohibition on disadvantaged communities, efforts to enact restorative justice policies and how those measures have affected the business community.

The Future of the Cannabis Industry is Colored—Another social justice-focused panel, this event will look at actionable things that people can do to ensure that the legal marijuana market is equitable. “The right and just thing to do for racially equity industry is also the profitable thing to do in business,” a description of the panel states. Kris Krane of 4Front Investments, Simply Pure CEO Wanda James and representatives of the People’s Dispensary will participate.

Frenemies: Cannabis Activists & Cannabis Industry—Krane, who also previous served as executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), will also lead a session that explores the complicated relationship between the reform advocacy world and the marijuana industry. He will take a “deep dive into this relationship, examining how the two can support each other, where they clash” and why he thinks “the industry is obligated to support the drug policy reform movement.”

Boutique Cannabis Needs Appellations—Individuals fighting to get a designation for cannabis products that reflect where they were produced will discuss the importance of the business move.

Forbidden Territories: Women & Children First!—This panel will focus on the use of cannabis in the treatment of conditions that afflict women and children. “This session will explore this taboo topic, explore the science that supports the use of cannabis for these populations as well as what we as physicians have learned from our patients about cannabis.”

Hemp: Game Changers—Representatives from Canopy Growth, Vincente Sederberg LLP and outdoor apparel company Patagonia will discuss marijuana’s non-intoxicating cousin, hemp, as part of a panel centered on the “rapidly evolving new industry.”

Is Cannabis Media Coverage Fair or Biased?—Panelists including Business Insider reporter Jeremy Berke and Rolling Stone contributor Amanda Chicago Lewis will look at the media landscape for marijuana coverage. “They’ll delve into how media coverage has changed for cannabis companies and discuss the high bar companies need to achieve to gain media attention,” as well as addressing “how misinformation persists and how the careful art of semantics—such as using the word dope vs. cannabis—changes reader perceptions.”

Marijuana Today: Live Podcast Recording—The weekly podcast Marijuana Today will record live for a segment that “will focus on the status of efforts to reform federal law and to promote equity in the cannabis industry.” SSDP Executive Director Betty Aldworth will participate in the event.

Medical Cannabis: From Rogue to Recovery to Riches—A Texas state senator will join a panel to discuss the evolution of the cannabis reform movement as well as future “business and social opportunities” for the industry. The panel of “government, medical and family activists will uncover the unexpected alliances formed—and strategies for collaboration for commercial success in a complex marketplace.”

Navigating an Emerging Cannabis Beverage Market—While federal regulators are playing catchup, a market for cannabis-infused beverages has exploded. This panel will explore the business and “share insights and lessons learned as they navigate the rapidly changing landscape in hopes of bringing world-class cannabis beverages to market.”

“Cannabusiness Track includes content that will appeal to more experienced professionals in this rapidly evolving industry, as well as to newcomers who are just starting to enter this space,” SXSW said.

At this year’s SXSW event, in March, social equity activists protested an appearance by former House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who opposed legalization while in Congress but now sits on the board of a large cannabis company.

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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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