A company’s brand is its identity. Branding elements – names, logos, colors, graphics, slogans – are how customers recognize a product or service as coming from a particular source. Done properly, brands can be as recognizable to consumers as a person’s face, name, and voice. In some cases, brands may be some of the most valuable assets a company may own. Protecting physical assets is common in the cannabis industry, but how do companies protect intangible assets, like their identity? Fortunately, there are bodies of intellectual property law designed to provide legal protections against others from using brand elements that are too close to your own. To take advantage of these protections, however, cannabis companies must understand how each one works and develop a branding strategy that leverages intellectual property laws.
This is the second article in a 3-part series about cannabis IP. The first article focused on patent law and can be found here. The series will culminate with a Q&A-based webinar on April 19th at 1:00 Eastern. Advance questions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mechanisms of Brand Protection
Brands are protected most prominently by legal domains known as trademark and trade dress. Trademarks include a company’s name, logos, and slogans, as well as those of any individual products. In some instances, trademarks may also include recognizable elements like colors (UPS’s brown) and sounds (NBC’s chimes). Trade dress is a similar concept to trademarks, but applies to the distinct appearance of a product or its packaging. Trade dress can even be used to protect the unique look and feel of a retail establishment, such as a restaurant or dispensary.
Both trademark and trade dress is intended to reduce confusion in the marketplace as to the origin of a product or service. The idea is that the public is best served when they can reliably determine which company to associate with each product. Reliable product-company association increases quality accountability, facilitates safety controls, allows consumers to form powerful brand loyalty.
Companies that avail themselves of trademark and trade dress laws gain access to a set of tools to legally fence off others from using branding that is likely to confuse customers about the source of a product. And, unlike other forms of intellectual property, trademark rights can last indefinitely and even strengthen over time. Some of these rights arise automatically just by using a mark, others must be sought out through registration.
Principles to Consider When Selecting a Brand
Every company should consider trademark principles from day zero, when first selecting a name. U.S. trademark rights only apply to marks that are “distinctive,” meaning they are capable of distinguishing things bearing the mark from goods and services offered by others. The more distinctive a mark is, the stronger protections provided by trademark law. Names that merely describe the goods or services are non-distinctive and are typically not eligible for trademark protection.
There are five general categories along the spectrum of distinctiveness – fanciful, arbitrary, suggestive, descriptive, and generic – arranged from strongest to weakest.
Fanciful marks words that were invented specifically to serve as a trademark, such as Xerox or Nvidia. Because these words have no other meaning than to identify the source of goods or services, they are the most distinctive category of trademark and receive the greatest protections.
Arbitrary marks are the second most distinctive category of mark and include words that have alternative meanings, but only meanings in contexts unrelated to the goods or services being sold. These include Apple computers, Lotus cars, and Bicycle playing cards.
Suggestive marks are less distinctive than Fanciful and Arbitrary marks, but still considered sufficiently distinctive to receive trademark protection, though registration may be more difficult. Suggestive marks imply a quality or characteristic of the good or service the mark is used in connection with. Some examples of suggestive marks would include: Microsoft, a portmanteau of microprocessors and software; ChapStick, for a stick-shaped balm used on chapped lips; and Netflix, which is suggestive of an internet-based video service.
Descriptive marks simply describe the goods or services being offered and are, therefore, not distinctive. In some cases, however, descriptive marks can acquire distinctiveness and achieve a “secondary meaning” as a source-identifier through long-term use (usually +5 years), heavy advertising, or pervasive adoption. Examples of Descriptive Marks would include: International Business Machines (IBM Computers); Best Buy retail stores; and Sports Illustrated magazine.
Generic marks are terms that broadly identify the product or service being offered. Generic marks are so non-distinctive that they are not eligible for trademark registration, even if secondary meaning can be shown. The idea is that these marks are so fundamental to the product that it would be detrimental to consumers and the marketplace to allow a brand to have exclusive use of the term in connection with the goods. “Escalator” and “Dumpster” were once brand names but, because they were used widely to refer to all mechanized stairways and trash receptacles regardless of manufacturer, they lost all trademark distinctiveness.
Parody Does Not Apply – Avoid Famous Brands
A surprising number of cannabis companies have used trademarks that reference or parody famous brands. Gorilla Glue, Girl Scout Cookies, and many others have been used as names for cannabis products. Companies have used packaging that resembles well-known products such as Life Savers and Sour Patch Kids. This is a bad idea. While this practice seems to be increasingly limited to unregulated markets, a recently published (and ill-advised) application for the mark and logo MCWEED for apparel shows that not everyone has received the message:
Registration and Scope of Protection
Some trademark rights are established as soon as a trademark is used in commerce. But to obtain the full scope of legal protections available, trademark owners must register their marks, preferably federally. Federal registration stakes a claim to a nationwide priority date, increases protections available, increases potential damages, and embodies a definities property that can accrue value.
All trademark registrations begin as applications. Trademark applications must, among other things, identify the mark, the applicable dates of use. Applicants must also describe the goods and/or services the mark is (or will be) used with and select one or more classes from an international menu of product classifications. The classes selected and the description of the products can greatly affect the scope and validity of a registration, so it is important to consult with an experienced trademark attorney.
These applications are examined by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office to ensure they meet the statutory requirements. Typically, the USPTO completes examination within about 6 months, but currently the office is experiencing some delays and it is commonly taking 7-10 months for an application to be evaluated. If the examining attorney identifies any problems, they may issue rejections, to which the applicant will have an opportunity to respond.
If the USPTO approves the application, it will be published for 30 days (expandable to 180 days) to allow other trademark owners to oppose registration of the mark. Sophisticated trademark owners can set up alerts to be notified when any similar applications are published that may be concerning. At the close of that period the mark is recorded in the federal register and the trademark registration is complete.
A qualified trademark attorney can help guide you through the process and provide counseling concerning how to maximize your chances of registering your trademark without prejudicing your rights. Trademark application fees run $250-$350 per class of goods or services and a trademark attorney will typically charge a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on their experience and the level of pre-application clearance. While trademark mills and self-guided applications are available, there are many pitfalls to avoid while preparing and prosecuting a trademark application, and applicants should be wary of attempting to navigate the process without legal guidance.
Applicants should also be aware that many companies mine the USPTO database to send unsolicited offers to trademark applicants. While these offers can look official and typically include some deadline to respond, they are usually scams. Nevertheless, it can be helpful to have an attorney review any correspondence relating to the trademark application to ensure that no important correspondence from the USPTO is missed.
Embrace the Zone of Expansion
There are a lot of benefits to registering trademarks, but registration is not available in all instances. Under federal law, registrations cannot be issued that cover goods or services that are federally illegal. But the same mark can be registered for other, legal products, and the trademark rights will extend to a reasonable “zone of expansion,” covering products that the trademark owner could reasonably branch out to in the future. This allows a brand owner to obtain the benefits of federal trademark registration and use it to provide some umbrella protection for their cannabis brands.
One option is to sell branded accessory products, such as apparel or smoking accessories, for which a trademark registration will pass muster. It is debatable, however, whether cannabis products are within the zone of expansion of t-shirts.
Another option is to develop one or more low-THC hemp products under the same brand as high-THC cannabis products. At least one case is already working its way through the courts where a trademark owner is claiming that cannabis edibles are within the zone of expansion of a line of hemp-infused, low-THC edibles. Edible IP, LLC and Edible Arrangements, LLC v. MC Brands, LLC and Green Thumb Industries, Inc., (Case No. 20-cv-05840). Though that approach is also not without its pitfalls, as discussed below.
A final option that every cannabis company should consider is state trademark registration. State registration requirements are typically governed by state law and, therefore, state trademark registrations can often be obtained for cannabis products. State registrations are more limited than federal registrations, but can be a powerful tool in the current landscape of cannabis IP.
Products with CBD Can Be Trademarked, But You Can’t Trademark “CBD” Products
Companies that produce hemp products do not have the same problem with federal illegality as companies with high-THC products. Federal registration is available for trademarks that are used on hemp and hemp products. However, as most hemp companies should know, the advertising of cannabidiol or “CBD” is regulated by the Federal Drug and Cosmetic Act (“FDCA”), 21 U.S.C. §§ 321(g)(1), 331(d) and 355(a). Because CBD is the active ingredient in an FDA-approved drug (Epidiolex®), the FDCA prohibits marketing CBD products (absent a New Drug Application or Abbreviated New Drug Application). Though that may change. As of now, however, the USPTO will refuse to register marks that identify the goods as “CBD.” In re AgrotecHemp Corp., Serial No. 88979905 (issued Feb. 10, 2022) (finding that PUREXXXCBD for plant extracts should be refused registration).
Notably, the AgrotechHemp decision went further than previous USPTO decisions in that it also criticized the issuance of registrations for marks used on products “derived from hemp.” This may signal a crackdown on all hemp-related registrations, or it may be limited to registrations that explicitly identify the goods as containing “CBD.”
Where’s the Value in Trademarks?
It may come as no surprise that brands can be incredibly valuable assets. In some cases, a company’s brand can make up a significant portion of its balance sheet and brand-centric companies can fetch a premium when they are acquired, known as “goodwill.” Increasingly, specialized lenders are even willing to use secured IP as financing collateral. Nonetheless, the real value for many trademark owners is non-monetary.
When many people think about intellectual property, they recall headlines of jury verdicts with huge damages that can reach into the billions of dollars. The reality is that, absent intentional copying, trademark cases rarely result in large-dollar awards. More often, successful trademark suits result in an injunction preventing further infringement and some relatively minimal damages. The primary value of trademark rights is the ability to control your brand and how consumers perceive your brand in the marketplace. Trademark rights give you the tools to define your brand as a unique identity and preserve that identity in an increasingly crowded industry.