This is a sponsored post by Larry Sandell of Mei & Mark LLP.
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. As long as appropriate extensions of time are filed with the USPTO every six months, an ITU application can survive up to three years. So, playing the long game is a bet that federal legalization will occur before it expires.
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. Virtually all 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 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:
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 theUS 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. Virtually all cannabis strains of value fall outside of these requirements.
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.
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 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.
Square Quietly Launches Program For CBD Cannabis Company Credit Card Processing
Companies that sell cannabis products—even those consisting of CBD derived from hemp, which was legalized in the U.S. through the Farm Bill late last year—are continuing to have trouble accessing basic financial services that are available to businesses in other sectors. That includes being able to maintain bank accounts and process their customers’ credit cards.
The latter problem could be solved under a new pilot program that has quietly been launched by the payment processing service Square.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Facebook Uses Marijuana And Broccoli To Show Off Its AI Tech
Marijuana buds and tempura broccoli can look oddly similar out of context, but Facebook’s artificial intelligence (AI) technology can tell the difference.
At its annual developers conference on Wednesday, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer discussed how the social media giant is able to leverage visual AI to spot “policy-violating content,” including advertisements to sell cannabis on the platform. He explained the process by comparing images of the fried vegetable next to marijuana buds, which he described as the “most benign possible example” of prohibited content he could find.
— Queenie Wong (@QWongSJ) May 1, 2019
Five years ago, the company relied on “behavioral signals” to catch people advertising cannabis—things like whether the advertiser has been “caught for doing bad stuff before” or whether they used “obvious words” like “marijuana” or “drugs” in the post. But as AI advanced, Facebook developed a system that could visually distinguish cannabis from other miscellaneous items.
To drive the point home, Schroepfer put both images on the screen and challenged the audience to differentiate them.
— Tom Simonite (@tsimonite) May 1, 2019
A few people thought the tempura broccoli was marijuana, but most seemed to get it right. The visual algorithm was 94 percent sure that the marijuana was, in fact, marijuana, and 88 percent sure that the other image was the broccoli.
— john colucci (@johncolucci) May 1, 2019
For Facebook, the technology offers a convenient way to streamline its policy enforcement efforts. But for many cannabis reform groups and media companies that run Facebook accounts, the presentation is a window into an ongoing frustration.
The ban on content promoting the sale of federally illicit drugs has had collateral consequences for pages that post noncommercial marijuana material such as news outlets like Marijuana Moment and state regulatory bodies like the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission. These pages have at times been hidden from search results (a technique referred to as “shadowbanning”) because the algorithm isn’t able to accurately differentiate commercial advertisements from cannabis-related news articles, for example.
Marijuana influencers and state-legal cannabis businesses have long complained about having their accounts on the Facebook-owned Instagram platform temporarily disabled or permanently blocked for depicting cannabis or advertising their services.
A policy change may be on the horizon, as the company said in March that it wants “to consider whether we can loosen this restriction, especially in relation to medical marijuana, legal marijuana and brick and mortar stores.” But for the time being, Facebook will continue to enforce the policy, and it hasn’t provided a status update on that front at the conference so far.
“It’s against our policies because it’s against U.S. federal law, so you can’t advertise marijuana on Facebook,” Schroepfer said.
Photo courtesy of Facebook.
FDA Sends Warnings To Three Companies Selling CBD Products
At the same time that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is working to create a regulatory framework for hemp-derived CBD, it’s also cracking down on companies that are in its view irresponsibly marketing CBD products and making unsanctioned claims about their medical benefits.
FDA announced on Tuesday that it and the Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to three such companies last month: PotNetwork Holdings in Florida, Nutra Pure in Washington state and Advanced Spine and Pain in New Jersey. The letters were sent “in response to their making unsubstantiated claims related to more than a dozen different products and spanning multiple product webpages, online stores and social media websites,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a press release.
In a Twitter thread, the commissioner added that he was “concerned to hear recently that several national pharmacy chains and other major retailers have begun to sell or will soon begin to sell” CBD products and that the agency will “be contacting them to remind them of #FDA obligations and our commitment to protect consumers against products that can put them at risk.”
CVS and Walgreens both recently announced they will begin selling CBD-infused products.
We’ll be contacting them to remind them of #FDA obligations and our commitment to protect consumers against products that can put them at risk.
— Scott Gottlieb, M.D. (@SGottliebFDA) April 2, 2019
In the press release about the warning letters his agency has already sent to CBD companies, Gottlieb asserted that they used their websites to “make unfounded, egregious claims about their products’ ability to limit, treat or cure cancer, neurodegenerative conditions, autoimmune diseases, opioid use disorder, and other serious diseases, without sufficient evidence and the legally required FDA approval.”
At the same time, the warning letters announced today make clear that #FDA has and will continue to monitor the marketplace and use our authorities to take action against companies illegally selling these types of products when they are putting consumers at risk
— Scott Gottlieb, M.D. (@SGottliebFDA) April 2, 2019
FDA is hustling to provide manufacturers guidelines on marketing cannabidiol following the federal legalization of hemp last last year, but the process is complicated by the fact that CBD is the active ingredient in an FDA-approved drug, Epidiolex, and remains the subject of intensive clinical testing. Gottlieb has indicated that it will take years to develop a regulatory plan for CBD without further congressional action.
In the meantime, companies that continue to choose to engage in CBD commerce should be wary about making health claims about their products. The commissioner said FDA has “limited resources” for enforcement operations, but it would take action against companies that make “over-the-line” statements.
In the press announcement, FDA listed some of the unauthorized claims that the three companies made. For example, the products were touted as being able to treat cervical cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and substance use disorder.
“I believe these are egregious, over-the-line claims and we won’t tolerate this kind of deceptive marketing to vulnerable patients,” Gottlieb said. “The FDA continues to be concerned about the proliferation of egregious medical claims being made about products asserting to contain CBD that haven’t been approved by the FDA, such as the products and companies receiving warning letters today.”
“Selling unapproved products with unsubstantiated therapeutic claims can put patients and consumers at risk,” he said. “These products have not been shown to be safe or effective, and deceptive marketing of unproven treatments may keep some patients from accessing appropriate, recognized therapies to treat serious and even fatal diseases.”
Questions about what constitutes an unauthorized claim that would put a company at risk of enforcement action will likely come up at the agency’s just-announced public hearing CBD issues on May 31. Stakeholders are invited to submit information about the public safety impacts of CBD and how to manufacture and market products that contain the cannabis compound.
This piece was updated to include Gottlieb’s tweets about national pharmacy chains.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.