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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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PTO Doesn’t Buy That THC Stands for Tea Honey Care

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) recently affirmed the refusal to register the mark THCTEA, holding that it is “deceptively misdescriptive” when used in connection with tea-based beverages. The Applicant—Christopher Hinton—is, according to marijuanafreepress.com, the acting editor for the Marijuana Free Press.

THCTEA’s journey through the trademark system has been an uphill battle.The mark was first refused by the PTO back in September 2012, for being “merely descriptive” and for “plainly indicat[ing] that Applicant’s…goods include…THC.” One pre-requisite for trademark registration is lawful use of the mark in commerce. The problem in this case was that goods containing THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana) are illegal under federal law, so it would be impossible for the Applicant to show lawful use of the mark if the product did indeed contain THC.

Here is where things become interesting. The Applicant responded by clarifying that his beverages do not actually contain THC. Accordingly, the PTO rescinded its refusal based on unlawful use, but raised a new ground for refusal, based on the Applicant’s own admission: Using THCTEA on a beverage that contains no THC is deceptively misdescriptive.

Deceptively misdescriptive marks have two key features:  they misdescribe a significant characteristic of the goods associated with the mark (the “misdescriptive” part); and they are likely to cause reasonable consumers to purchase the goods, believing that the goods contain the misdescribed trait (the “deceptive” part). For example, LOVEE LAMB was held to be deceptively misdescriptive for seat covers that were not actually made of lamb’s wool. On the other hand, WOOLRICH was held not to be deceptively misdescriptive for clothes made out of cotton. In close cases, good lawyering can make a big difference.

After the PTO issued a final refusal, the Applicant appealed to the TTAB. On appeal, the Applicant re-alleged his previous arguments: “The characteristics of Applicant’s goods are such that they are suggestive” and “the product does not contain the controlled substance THC…THC is an abbreviation for ‘The Honey Care Tea.’” The TTAB was unpersuaded, and affirmed the PTO’s refusal.

Regarding the misdescription, the TTAB held that “it is plausible that tea-based beverages could contain THC” (albeit illegally) and that “THCTEA, when used for tea-based beverages, is merely descriptive for tea containing THC as a significant ingredient.” Apparently, recipes for THC-containing tea from such websites as grasscity.com, thestonercookbook.com, and 420magazine.com are sufficient to persuade the government that THC-containing tea is plausible. We were unable to find a recipe for THC-containing tea on marijuanafreepress.com.

Regarding deception, the TTAB agreed with the PTO that consumers would be likely to buy THCTEA beverages believing that they contain THC. The TTAB reasoned that, in light of the liberalization of marijuana policy in the United States, “a reasonably prudent consumer would be likely to believe that Applicant’s…beverages contain THC.”

In what probably comes as no surprise, neither the PTO nor the TTAB bought the Applicant’s argument that “THC” stands for “Tea Honey Care,” or that “THCTEA” stands for “The Honey Care Tea.” Apparently, the Applicant’s “example advertisements” (below) were unpersuasive:

thc1

Additionally, the specimen (below) that the Applicant submitted to the PTO probably did not help his “Tea Honey Care” argument:

thc2

THCTEA illustrates an interesting Catch-22 for descriptive marks that reference controlled substances. If you do put the controlled substance in your goods, you can’t claim lawful use of your mark in commerce. If you don’t put the controlled substance in your goods, your mark may be deceptively misdescriptive.

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food


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Don’t Be Fooled by Trademark Spam!

About five to ten times per year, we get a call from a client asking why the USPTO sent them an invoice for hundreds of dollars for their trademark applications. After a few minutes, it becomes clear what they are talking about—trademark spam.

Trademark spam? Trademark spam is an unavoidable and unfortunate result of the information an applicant provides the USPTO in an application, which is publically available. This includes, among other information, the name, address, and email of the party applying for the mark. As a result, spammers have all of the information they need to send fake trademark solicitations that appear to be legitimate. The USPTO is fully aware of trademark spam, but despite its efforts, applicants and registrants continue to be victimized by spammers.

What does trademark spam look like? Trademark spam generally comes in the form of official-looking correspondence—letters or email—that either “requires” the recipient to pay certain fees, or strongly “recommends” that the recipient use a particular company to facilitate the trademark registration process. In the first instance, some fees are completely fabricated, while other fees purport to be real fees, but are grossly inflated by the spammer. Here is a list of the actual USPTO trademark fees and their correct amounts. In the second instance, spammers offer their services to facilitate the registration process, something only licensed attorneys are allowed to do. To give you a better idea of what trademark spam looks like, here are a couple examples of trademark spam, one from the “U.S. Trademark Compliance Office” and another from the “Patent & Trademark Office.” While these may appear to be official USPTO documents, both are actually spam.

How can I distinguish trademark spam from legitimate, USPTO correspondence? Here is a quick, easy, and effective way, recommended by the USPTO, to tell trademark spam from legitimate correspondence: If the correspondence is from (1) the “United States Patent and Trademark Office” in Alexandria, VA; or (2) If by e-mail, specifically from the domain “@uspto.gov,” then it is official, USPTO correspondence. Also, if you hired an attorney to file your application, all legitimate mail should go to them. Remember, if you ever have any doubt as to the legitimacy of any correspondence you receive regarding your trademark application or registration, you should check with the USPTO, or an experienced trademark attorney.

What should I do if I get spammed? If you receive any communications that you believe may be spam, or believe you have been misled by trademark spam in the past, the USPTO encourages you to email a copy of the correspondence and the envelope it came in to tmfeedback@uspto.gov, so that it may assess whether to add the sender to the trademark spam list. While the USPTO will not reimburse you for any money you paid to a spammer, notifying the USPTO may help prevent others from being misled in the future.

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alcohol beverages generally


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Old Bay Beer

I do believe this Olde Bay Saison label raises at least a few legal issues. First of all, I sure hope the brewer had permission to use this famous branding. McCormick owns the Old Bay seasoning brand and probably would not have a sense of humor about any unauthorized uses. Even if the beer is loaded up with the same seasoning, and even if the reference tends to be flattering. I can not imagine that changing one letter (from Old to Olde) is likely to help any more. The total production for this ale with spices seems to have been tiny, so that may help somewhat more to avoid problems.

A second legal issue is that, such a beer needs formula approval, before label approval and production. To get formula approval, it is usually necessary to provide a detailed ingredient list to TTB. It can be very difficult for anyone to get ingredient details (beyond what FDA typically requires on a food label’s ingredient list) about famous and protected products like Coca-Cola, Angostura Bitters, or Old Bay. TTB typically needs to check for artificial flavors, allergens, colors, and use-rate limitations, and this can be very difficult to do without a complete ingredient list of the sort that McCormick would be unlikely to provide to the brewer here (The D.O.G. Beverage Co. of Westminster, Maryland). So this raises the question of whether this beer actually contains Old Bay seasoning, or TTB did not require details about all 18 ingredients, or D.O.G. somehow got hold of the ingredient list.

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flavored malt beverage


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