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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.

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:

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 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.

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 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.

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Cypress Hill Rapper Who Opposed California Legalization Opens A Marijuana Store

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On Wednesday, rapper B-Real of Cypress Hill and Prophets of Rage will celebrate the grand opening of his new “Dr. Greenthumb” recreational marijuana dispensary in southern California.

It’s the latest stage in what’s been a significant evolution for the prominent cannabis-friendly musician, who less than two years ago declared himself opposed to the state’s marijuana legalization ballot measure that is making his new venture possible.

In a press release issued Friday advertising “an all day blowout” at Dr. Greenthumb in Sylmar, California, B-Real is described as “a prominent figure at the forefront of cannabis legalization for over two decades.”

“We have a lot of history behind us as it relates to music and the pro-legalization movement,” B-Real said, according to the statement.

That history includes opposing Proposition 64, which legalized marijuana for adults 21 and over and also paved the way for regulated commercial storefronts like the one B-Real is opening.

In the run-up to the November 2016 election, where Prop. 64—also known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act—passed with more than 57 percent of the vote, the rapper used social media to agitate against its passage.


On October 10, 2016, less than a month before Election Day, the rapper shared an image on social media that claimed Prop. 64 “helps keep the drug cartels in business,” “sets up HUGE growing operations for rich white people, destroying small businesses” and “turns rights into priviledges” [sic].

“Read up Cali!” B-Real wrote on Twitter, where he posted the image that claimed “This is NOT Legalization. VOTE NO.”

B-Real’s opposition was similar to anti-legalization messaging coming from other marijuana advocates, many of whom claimed that the measure was a corporate giveaway that would harm small-and-medium producers. At least some of that has come to pass as the cannabis economy adapts in response to the new reality of broader legalization.

But B-Real seems to have adjusted to the new reality almost immediately.

On Election Night, after cannabis ballot measures won in California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada, he posted a message of congratulations.

“Although I’m someone that was and is concerned about prop 64, California made history tonight and to that I tip my hat,” he wrote.

In an e-mail sent via a spokeswoman in response to Marijuana Moment’s questions about B-Real’s evolution on California legalization, the rapper took a free-market approach. He opposed Prop. 64 because of legalization’s regulations and taxes, he explained.

“I was opposed to it at the time because some of the new regulations and penalties along with overwhelming taxation which seemed to be unfair to smaller businesses,” he wrote. “Additionally, a number of other complicated issues that are just now being addressed with new and changing policies. I still think there are things that need further due diligence to give the small business owner a chance at succeeding before the big businesses start to come into play.”

A week after the election, B-Real released a record that, according to a press release, “passionately advocates for marijuana legalization across all 50 states.”

In promotional material for “Prohibition Part 3,” B-Real appeared in a photoshopped image smoking marijuana in public—an act that, were he to do it in real life, is punishable only by a $100 citation thanks to Prop. 64.

And earlier this year, B-Real gave an interview to a New Zealand-based website in which he declared that legalization has “been great.”

“For most of us that have been in the culture for a long time, we’re just seeing and waiting for more of the regulations to happen to know how it’s going to operate officially,” he told Under the Radar. “Right now all the rules and regulation aren’t implemented and in place so we’re just taking it as each day comes and try to be informed and being a step ahead. But it’s been great, a lot of people are happier.”

Regulated and taxed commercial sales of marijuana began in California on January 1.

B-Real, whose musical repertoire with Cypress Hill includes “Hits from the Bong,” “Dr. Greenthumb” has been trying to enter the marijuana-dispensary business since 2015.

In February of that year, he won a lottery drawing to open one of the first medical-cannabis dispensaries in Santa Ana, in Orange County, California.

But by September 2016, shortly before B-Real’s public disavowal of marijuana legalization, the dispensary had still yet to open.

Now, thanks to the passage of Amendment 64 over his own objections, B-Real will be able to sell cannabis to adults over 21 years of age regardless of whether they have a doctor’s recommendation.

“I never changed that stance, but I do have a brand that myself and my partners have been building for a number years in the cannabis industry aside from my over 20 years of advocacy,” B-Real said in his statement to Marijuana Moment about his concerns with the measure. “My intention was always open a shop when the right opportunity presented itself and that we could be fully compilant [sic]. This would ultimately allow me to have a landing place for our brands in the cannabis community for recreation and medicinal consumers.”

The rapper also said that he plans to use some of the proceeds from the new retail operation to “give back to the community and create programs for the youth and show the positive impact from the cannabis community and break some of the still existing opposition.”

“Good can come from this community and we plan to educate through our example,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Festivalsommer // Biha.

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Workplace Deaths Drop After States Legalize Medical Marijuana

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Workers appear to be safer in states that have legalized medical marijuana, according to a new study.

The research, scheduled to be published in the International Journal of Drug Policy in October, is the first of its kind to explore the relationship between medical cannabis laws and workplace fatalities.

Analyzing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 1992 to 2015, a team of researchers found that workplace deaths declined by about 34 percent five years after a state legalized medical cannabis. The trend was most pronounced among workers between the ages of 25 and 44.

“The results provide evidence that legalizing medical marijuana improved workplace safety for workers aged 25–44.”

Because no previous studies have specifically investigated the relationship between legal cannabis and workplace fatalities, the researchers said the results could have gone either way.

Would legalizing cannabis put more workers at risk given the “short-term effects of marijuana use on psychomotor performance and cognition,” or might it lead to fewer workplace deaths in light of what we know about the use of cannabis as a substitute for alcohol and prescription drugs?

Theoretically, if people use marijuana as an alternative to alcohol or pharmaceuticals like opioid-based painkillers, the risk of impairment on the job could be lower, the researchers wrote.

And the data seems to back that up. Though the exact cause behind the trend warrants further research, one finding seems to substantiate the substitution theory: rates of workplace fatalities were lower in states that include pain as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana.

“Specifically, legalizing medical marijuana was associated with a 19.8 percent reduction in the expected number of workplace fatalities among workers aged 25–44 if pain was included as a qualifying condition; if pain was not included as a qualifying condition, the association between legalizing medical marijuana and workplace fatalities was not statistically significant.”

The researchers also observed that states where collective cultivation of cannabis is permitted experienced fewer workplace fatalities, indicating that ease of access may play a role in mitigating these incidents.

Photo courtesy of The International Journal of Drug Policy

How this study could impact public policy

As more states have pushed forward with efforts to legalize cannabis, a conversation has been brewing about employment rights in legal jurisdictions. Courts in numerous states with medical marijuana laws on the books have affirmed employers’ right to terminate workers who test positive for marijuana metabolites, even if they’re registered patients. A handful of states, including Arizona and Illinois, have gone the opposite direction, however, granting employment protections to medical cannabis patients.

More recently, drug reform advocates have been pushing for anti-discrimination policies that would protect marijuana consumers in the workplace. A bill introduced by Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL) last month would ensure that federal workers wouldn’t be penalized for using cannabis off-the-clock in a legal state, for example.

Part of the logic behind blanket bans on marijuana use is that it is an impairing substance that could jeopardize worker safety. Evidence to support that claim is lacking, and this new study offers a fresh perspective on the debate.

Congressman Pushes Federal Employment Protections For Marijuana Consumers

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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Washington State Prepares To Rewrite Marijuana Testing And Packaging Rules

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Marijuana regulators in Washington State will entertain sweeping changes to how marijuana is tested, processed, packaged and sold in one of the U.S.’s oldest recreational marijuana markets, officials announced late Wednesday.

Recreational cannabis has been sold in regulated retail outlets in Washington since 2014. Consumers there pay one of the country’s highest tax burdens, generating nearly $400 million in revenue through the first three years of legalization, as the Stranger reported in late 2017.

But medical marijuana patients have long complained about limited product availability. And a recent string of testing labs suspended for erratic results that allowed unsafe product to reach retail shelves has shaken confidence in product safety.

“Requests from the industry have…been received regarding testing requirements, and changes in testing requirements in other states have prompted further review of WSLCB rules for potential adjustment,” the new notice from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board said. “Additionally, the WSLCB has heard from the medical marijuana patient community that they would like to see additional product types or levels of potency that are not currently supported by the regulatory structure.”

“For these reasons, changes to products, serving amounts in packaging, and other related requirements may be considered,” the regulators announced Wednesday.

Wednesday evening’s notice is the initial notification of potential rulemaking, and “no rule language is offered at this stage of the process.”

Members of the public can submit comments or proposals until October 24. No proposed rules changes are expected to be filed until “on or after October 31,” the notice said.

“Following the comment period, the agency will send out and publish the proposed rules, establish a comment period on the proposed rules, and hold a public hearing before the rules are adopted,” according to the agency.

Until then, the agency “will consider the following topics for potential rulemaking changes,” according to Wednesday’s notice:

  • Lot and batch sizes;
  • Fields of testing and pass/fail level adjustments;
  • Potency testing requirements;
  • Pesticide testing requirements for all cannabis products;
  • Heavy metals testing requirements;
  • Sample deduction requirements;
  • General testing rule adjustments;
  • Product, THC serving limits, and packaging requirements; and
  • “Other related rule changes that may be necessary or advisable,” according to the notice.

Whatever “further adjustments” the agency will propose are meant to “increase efficiencies in testing” and “increase the availability of compliant [cannabis] products,” the notice said.

Anyone interested in submitting comments or proposed rules can contact Joanna Eide, Policy and Rules Coordinator, at [email protected].

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