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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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Canopy Growth Says GW Pharma Infringed On CBD Extraction Patent In Federal Lawsuit

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Two of the biggest players in the marijuana space are heading to federal court over a dispute related to an alleged violation of a patent for a cannabis extraction method.

Canopy Growth Corporation, a Canadian-based marijuana company, filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against GW Pharmaceuticals, a UK-based firm that produces the Food and Drug Administration-approved cannabis-derived anti-seizure medication Epidiolex.

The legal action came on the same day that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued a new patent to Canopy that gives it broad and exclusive rights to a process of extracting cannabinoids from plant material in the U.S. That issuance is giving Canopy more leverage to pursue litigation and potentially receive damages from GW if the suit plays out in its favor.

Canopy’s original patent—which was issued in 2014 (and initially filed as an international patent application in 2001)—was more narrow and gave companies like GW leeway to adopt their own extraction practices that fall outside the scope of the patent.

That’s not the case anymore, and if the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas sides with the plaintiffs, it could have far-reaching implications for the marijuana industry.

Canopy is claiming that GW’s infringement of a patented extraction method “has been and continues to be willful and deliberate.” Because of this infringement, “Canopy has suffered and continues to suffer damages and irreparable harm,” the suit says.

The looming issue for the industry is that, unless GW is able to prove that the patent is invalid, that could mean Canopy would have exclusive rights to an extraction process that is widely used across the market—leaving any company that relies on this method at risk of litigation.

Canopy’s exclusive rights won’t last indefinitely, of course. The newly issued patent that is the basis of its latest iteration is set to expire in a little under a year and a half. But even in that timeframe, Canopy could profit immensely from exclusivity and it could have a chilling effect on competitors in the interim.

“It really could be a major threat to the extraction industry. Once they know about [the patent], companies might be considered to be willfully infringing the patent, which can potentially triple damages if they are sued,” Larry Sandell, a patent attorney and litigator with Mei & Mark LLP, told Marijuana Moment. “Although there are steps that can be taken to reduce infringement liability risks, CO2 extractors may essentially have this anvil hanging over their head as the business continues on—at least until the patent expires or someone succeeds in knocking it out.”

It remains to be seen whether Canopy will pursue litigation against other companies that use the extraction process. GW is one of the biggest players, as the pharmaceutical firm that earned the first U.S. federal approval for a cannabis-derived medication.

“The lawsuit asserts that GW manufactures CBD—the active pharmaceutical ingredient in Epidiolex, GW’s leading cannabinoid product—using Canopy Growth’s patented CO2-based extraction process,” Phil Shaer, chief legal officer at Canopy Growth, told Marijuana Moment. “We have no interest in restricting access to Epidiolex, but the company should be fairly compensated for GW’s use of our intellectual property.“

A spokesperson for GW told Marijuana Moment that the company “is aware of the patent infringement lawsuit filed by Canopy Growth.”

“As a policy, we do not comment on any pending litigation except to say that based on our preliminary review of the complaint, we are confident in our position and will vigorously defend against this lawsuit,” they said.

One possibility would be for Canopy to license out its extraction method to other businesses that produce cannabis products.

But that’s not likely to sit well with others in the burgeoning industry. And it could be the case that GW or other companies will challenge the legitimacy of the very patent in question in court.

On a symbolic level, all of this speaks to the growing pains of a corporatizing industry—a fear expressed by some advocates as the market has expanded. And how it shakes out in this case could, at least in the short-term, be of significant consequence to cannabis businesses throughout the country.

Read Canopy’s new patent and suit against GW over a cannabis extraction process below: 

Canopy vs. GW CBD Extractio… by Marijuana Moment

Mitch McConnell Cheers Lack Of Marijuana Banking Protections In New COVID Bill

Photo by Kimzy Nanney.

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State Of Montana Launches Online Hemp Marketplace To Connect Buyers And Sellers

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Say you’re a Montana farmer who has planted acres of industrial hemp. As harvest nears, you’re looking to offload it. Where do you go to find a buyer?

Montana’s Department of Agriculture says it has the answer.

The state this week announced the launch of an online “Hemp Marketplace,” unveiling an online portal meant to connect the hemp farmers with buyers in search of seeds, fiber and derivatives such as cannabidiol, or CBD.

“The Hemp Marketplace concept originated from the same idea as the department’s Hay Hotline,” the Agriculture Department says on its website, “only instead of hay and pasture, the online tool connects buyers and sellers of hemp and hemp derivatives.”

Listings are free of charge.

Montana online Hemp Marketplace screenshot

Montana Department of Agriculture

Montana farmers have embraced industrial hemp since the state legalized its production under a federal pilot program. The first legal crop was planted in 2017, and in recent years the state has led the country in terms of space dedicated to the plant. In 2018, for example, licensed farmers in Montana grew more acreage of hemp than any other U.S. state. While other states have since eclipsed the state’s hemp production—the crop became broadly federally legal through the 2018 Farm Bill—Montana remains an industry leader.

But to make revenue, farmers have to be able to sell their crop. That’s where the new hemp marketplace comes in. The online portal is essentially a sophisticated bulletin board for buyers and sellers, split into “Hemp for Sale” and “Hemp to Buy” categories.

“With hemp being a relatively new crop grown in Montana, the department recognizes that these markets are still developing,” Department of Agriculture Director Ben Thomas said in a statement. “The Hemp Marketplace was designed to help facilitate connections between buyers and sellers. I’m looking forward to seeing how the marketplace will continue to advance the industry.”

Listings include what type of products are on offer (or being sought), whether a given crop is organic and even whether laboratory testing data is available. The portal also organizes products into one of four varieties based on whether the hemp seeds have been certified by regulators. None of the products may contain more than 0.3 percent THC—the upper limit for what qualifies as hemp under both state and federal law.

Meanwhile, Montana voters are set to decide on Tuesday whether the state will legalize hemp’s more infamous cousin, high-THC marijuana. According to a poll released this week, passage looks likely: The survey, conducted by Montana State University at Billings, found that 54 percent of likely voters plan to support legal cannabis on the ballot. Another 38 percent said they were opposed, while 7 percent remained undecided.

At the federal level, officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration are still working to revise rules around marijuana and hemp to reflect Congress’s move to legalize hemp broadly in 2018. While the public comment on the proposals closed earlier this month, nine members of Congress cautioned the agency against adopting its proposed changes, warning some could put hemp producers at risk of criminal liability. Already a number of arrests and seizures have been made by law enforcement officers confused whether products were legal hemp or illicit marijuana.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), meanwhile, has faced separate criticism over its own proposed hemp rules, though it has been more proactive in addressing them. Following significant pushback from the industry over certain regulations it views as excessively restrictive, the agency reopened a public comment period, which closed again this month.

USDA is also planning to distribute a national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the market.

Montana Marijuana Legalization Ballot Measure Has Solid Lead In New Poll

Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak

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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Missouri Launches Medical Marijuana Sales At State’s First Dispensaries

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Less than two years after Missouri voters approved a ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana, dispensaries made the state’s first cannabis sales to patients on Saturday.

N’Bliss Cannabis opened the doors of two separate St. Louis County locations, in Ellisville and Manchester.

“Missouri patients have always been our north star as we work to implement the state’s medical marijuana program,” Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said in a press release. “We greatly appreciate how hard everyone has worked so that patients can begin accessing a safe and well-regulated program.”

Officials have touted the speed with which they have gotten the voter-approved cannabis program off the ground, saying it is “one of the fastest implementations of a medical marijuana program in the United States.”

Via Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

“A tremendous amount of work has occurred by the licensed facilities and our team to get us to this point, and we continue to hear from more facilities that they are ready or almost ready for their commencement inspection,” Lyndall Fraker, director of the Section for Medical Marijuana Regulation, said in a press release. “We look forward to seeing these facilities open their doors to serve patients and caregivers.”

The impending launch of sales on Saturday was first announced by the Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association on Friday and reported by The Springfield News-Leader.

The state, which has so far licensed 192 dispensaries and expects most of them to open their doors by the end of the year, posted an interactive map that tracks the status of approved medical marijuana businesses.

For months, regulators have been caught up in lawsuits and appeals challenging their licensing decisions, with revenues that would otherwise go to supporting veteran services instead being allocated to covering legal costs.

Missouri isn’t the only state to see medical cannabis sales launch this weekend. Virginia’s first medical marijuana dispensary also held its grand opening on Saturday.

Meanwhile, recreational sales of marijuana rolled out in Maine last week—four years after voters there approved a legalization ballot measure.

Another New Jersey Poll Shows Marijuana Legalization Passing By A Huge Margin

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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