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Branding Your Marijuana Business

One of the predominant ways businesses protect their brands is through Federal trademark registration at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). In order to federally register a trademark, the trademark must be used in interstate commerce— lawfully . Because marijuana is federally illegal, it is impossible for a marijuana business to lawfully use a trademark in connection with marijuana and/or marijuana-specific goods and services in interstate commerce . Since Federal trademark registration is not an option, marijuana businesses need to get creative in how they protect their brands. Here are some alternative options for how a marijuana business can protect its brands.

Obtaining Federal Registration for Analogous Goods and Services

One tactic marijuana businesses have used to try and protect their brands is to obtain federal trademark registration for goods and services analogous to marijuana goods and services. These businesses might apply for trademark registration in connection with goods and services like tobacco, smoking devices, rolling papers, vaporizers, clothing, hats, and retail tobacco stores or services. The idea behind this tactic is rooted in trademark law which recognizes that similar marks used on related goods/services can cause consumer confusion as to the origin of those goods/services. By obtaining a federal registration for related goods and services, these businesses believe that they will be able to prevent third parties from using or obtaining registrations for confusingly similar trademarks in connection with marijuana goods and services if and when marijuana is legalized. They’re taking a gamble that their rights to, for example, a tobacco-related trademark will keep others from using that name in connection with marijuana.

The logic is, at least in theory, sound, and we see this type of thing quite often with alcohol beverage trademarks. The USPTO routinely refuses trademark applications for beer that are similar to existing registrations for wine or spirits. Alcohol beverage trademarks are also commonly refused in light of similar prior registrations for restaurants and bars, or even glassware.

There are, of course, some caveats with this approach. First, to apply for a trademark for analogous goods/services, you must have a bona fide intent to use the trademark in connection with those analogous goods/services, and/or (ultimately) actually use the trademark in connection with those analogous goods/services in order for the trademark to register. Someone who is merely trying to reserve a right in a name for marijuana is likely vulnerable to opposition or cancellation. Second, we don’t know whether (or the degree to which) the USPTO or courts will treat tobacco and tobacco-related goods/services and marijuana and marijuana-related goods/services as related goods. We can predict that these bodies will treat them as related goods, but this has not yet been tested. Finally, there are other factors at play, too, such as the difference in the trade channels in which tobacco and marijuana do (or will) travel, and possibly differences in consumer sophistication.

Due to this uncertainty, marijuana businesses should consider additional tactics to protect their brands.

Relying on Common Law Rights

Are you currently (and lawfully) selling marijuana under a brand name in a state in which marijuana has been legalized? If so, chances are you already have some “common law” trademark rights to that brand name. Common law trademark rights require no registration–they arise out of, and rely on continued and substantially exclusive use of, a trademark in connection with the sale of goods or services. These rights are limited to the goods/services in connection with which the trademark is used, and the geographic areas in which the mark is used (including the areas of “reasonable expansion”). So long as you maintain these common law rights by continuing to use your trademark, you can enforce these rights against junior users of confusingly similar marks on confusingly similar goods/services within your geographic area. If you have a mark you are selling products under, you should  put third parties on notice of your claim to a the mark by placing the letters TM (e.g. HANGRY BUDS™ ) next to the mark everywhere you use it (on packaging, advertising, etc.). Also, you should take care to use your mark in a consistent manner (same spelling, same capitalization, etc.) to strengthen your claim to the mark.

Relying on common-law trademark rights can be a good fallback solution for preventing third parties in your geographic area from using confusingly similar marijuana trademarks. But, common-law rights have limitations, and require excellent recordkeeping and proof to substantiate a claim to a mark, as of a certain date.

Obtaining State Trademark Registration

As illustrated above, common-law rights provide some fallback rights to a mark, but are somewhat limited. A much better solution is to seek a state trademark registration. Generally speaking, a state trademark registration provides you with the exclusive right to use a mark in connection with the described goods as of the date of filing . Each state has their own requirements for registration, but in general, they can be obtained by applying, paying a fee, and showing use of a trademark in connection with certain goods in the particular state. Here is a list of states where marijuana trademark registration is possible, as of late 2017 (the list is growing):

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California (January 1, 2018)
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Indiana
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Oregon
  • Vermont
  • Washington

As mentioned above, state trademark registrations entitle the registrant to the exclusive right to use the trademark within the entire state, and are prima facie evidence of the validity of the registration and the registrant’s ownership of the registration. Extending the example from above, a state trademark registrant based in San Francisco could rely on her state trademark registration to go after a junior user of a confusingly similar trademark in Los Angeles (or anywhere else that may be outside the registrant’s geographic area).

Conclusion

Just like other businesses, Marijuana businesses should prioritize protecting their brands, but due to various restrictions, must get creative in doing so. While federal trademark registration for marijuana and marijuana-specific goods/services is unavailable currently, obtaining federal registration for analogous goods may allow you to prevent others from using or registering the trademark in connection with marijuana. Relying on common law rights alone provides limited rights but might cause headaches down the road if you plan to expand beyond your initial territory, or if you have a difficult time substantiating your rights to an early sale date. Obtaining a state trademark registration is likely the best bet for most Marijuana businesses, at least until federal law changes and federal registration becomes a possibility.

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Cannabis Labeling

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Is it just a matter of time before TTB is scutinizing cannabis labels — for sneaky references to — wine?

I hope so. That would be great.

This article about cannabis beer got me to thinking about all manner of cannabinoid-related issues .

Did TTB approve the label yet? Not that I can see. I don’t find any Indica label approved for this Colorado brewery so far. But I do find this Dank label , which is pretty close. The label mentions a run-in with “the man” and pounds of resinous west coast Cannabacae. Dad and Dudes (the brewer) did a wonderful job of securing some trademark rights in this important term (DANK) sure to be much and more in demand in the future. But the label oddly implies that the company has a trademark registration on the term DANK in and of itself, when it does not appear that anyone does. I wonder if D&D’s registration will be sufficient, someday, to block pot purveyors from using the term DANK as part of their branding, and if pot will be considered highly-related to beer/wine/spirits.

Thanks to LabelVision, it’s quite easy to see that TTB has allowed only two “cannabis” labels so far: vodka with cannabis sativa , and Cabernet Franc with notes of cannabis (“pairs well with baked food or an after dinner smoke”).

There are quite a few Indica labels (not including the one in the drinks business article). There are plenty of pot labels wafting around already, and it seems clear there are many more on the way, in one form or another.

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Beer, Pot and the Government

pot Joe Sixpack this week has a good and thorough look at the many beer labels that talk about and tip a hat to their colleague, marijuana. The numbers and audacity are surely growing, as the old and antiquated laws fall by the wayside a bit. I like the quaint and funny reference to coats of arms:

With this month’s ballyhooed legalization of marijuana in Colorado, some beer makers are adding playful drug references to their brand names and labels, and regulators can do little to censor them.

Label oversight, a quirky if contentious area of federal alcohol law, has confounded breweries for years with often capricious standards that bear little on consumer protection.

Federal law, for example, oddly prohibits the use of coats of arms or wording that promises ‘pre-war strength,’ whatever that means.

Mr. Russell (aka Joe) also helped educate me that a safety meeting is not necessarily boring and dire:

Yes, there are limits. Dark Horse Brewing, in Michigan, lost its bid for Smells Like Weed IPA, though its hops, in fact, smell like pot. The name was later changed to Smells Like A Safety Meeting IPA. (A ‘safety meeting’ is slang for taking a break on the job to light up a doober.)

But expect to see fewer of those objections as more states move toward legalization.

Joe Sixpack has at least 16 label examples here and here .

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Beer + Hemp

Until about 10 years ago, there were quite a few beers made with hemp available in the US. Then TTB/ATF put out a policy and also said :

On April 6, 2000, ATF issued a policy on the use of hemp or hemp components in alcohol beverages and on the use of the term “hemp” or depictions of the hemp plant on labels for alcohol beverages. The policy does not ban the use of hemp in alcohol beverages, but was created to assure that beverage alcohol products do not contain a controlled substance (tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)). ATF also determined that the appearance of the word “hemp” or depictions of hemp plants on labels was likely to create a misleading impression as to the true identity or quality of the product. As of this writing, there are no approved certificates of label approval for products containing hemp.

Slowly but surely, however, in recent months various beers with hemp are starting to re-emerge and three of them are highlighted in this post. For the uninitiated, hemp happens to be a member of the cannabaceae family, a cousin of hops and close kin of marijuana (or cannabis). Above is O’Fallon’s Hemp Hop Rye , an amber ale brewed with hemp seeds and approved earlier this year. The label mentions the hemp, and has a little picture of the hops and rye — but the hemp or hemp seed imagery seemed to be missing (until we added it to the image above). According to a St. Louis Riverfront Times review the product “contains three kinds of malted barley, two types of rye, three varieties of hops and toasted hemp seed.”

TTB applied several hemp-specific qualifications to this and the other hemp approvals. TTB said:

  1. This label may not be used on a product that contains a controlled substance.
  2. Hemp component(s) must be tested in the U.S. for the presence of controlled substance(s) each time component is imported and results must be maintained on your premises for inspection.
  3. A detailed description of the method of analysis used by the U.S. lab to test for controlled substance must be maintained on your premise for inspection.

A second example is Humboldt Brown Ale Brewed with Hemp . It is brewed by Firestone Walker of Paso Robles, California. This approval also happens to add “This malt beverage may not have been produced with adjuncts (additives) except those that do not remain in the finished product.”

Our third example is Rogue Epoch Days Ale Brewed with Hemp Seeds . It is brewed in Newport, Oregon and happens to include a highly detailed ingredient list of a sort that is fairly rare on alcohol beverage labels.

components in alcohol beverages and on the use of the term “hemp” or depictions of the hemp plant on labels for alcohol beverages. The policy does not ban the use of hemp in alcohol beverages, but was created to assure that beverage alcohol products do not contain a controlled substance (tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)). ATF also determined that the appearance of the word “hemp” or depictions of hemp plants on labels was likely to create a misleading impression as to the true identity or quality of the product. As of this writing, there are no approved certificates of label approval for products containing hemp.

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