The 2018 Farm Bill was passed on December 20, 2018, and, among other things, removed hemp from the definition of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”). Prior to the passage of this Farm Bill, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) could refuse any cannabis or cannabis-related trademark application, on its face, because the identified goods and/or services were unlawful under the CSA. In other words, because the good or service for which the trademark was being sought was not in lawful use in interstate commerce, the USPTO would not grant federal trademark protection. With the passage of the Farm Bill, the USPTO is having to change its review practices to handle the confusion that the Bill created as to the trademark rights of cannabis or cannabis-related businesses.
On May 2, 2019, the USPTO issued new guidance addressed to its trademark examiners on how to handle trademark applications for cannabis-related products. The guidance reiterates that a product ‘must first be in lawful use’ to receive a federal trademark. As it relates to cannabis or cannabis-related trademarks filed on or after December 20, 2018, a lawful use determination “requires consultation of several different federal laws” including the CSA and the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (“FDCA”). The FDCA, which is overseen by the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”), makes it unlawful to introduce hemp-derived foods, beverages, dietary supplements, or pet treats unless approved by the FDA. Additionally, under the FDCA, “any product intended to have a therapeutic or medical use intended to affect the structure or function of the body” is a drug. Drugs cannot be distributed or sold in interstate commerce unless approved by the FDA. At present, other than Epidiolex, a plant-derived CBD product used to treat two pediatric epilepsy disorders, no cannabis-derived drug products have been approved by the FDA. The FDA recently restated its viewpoint on the market for CBD products in a revised consumer update and is carefully monitoring the space, having issued 15 warning letters to cannabis-related companies selling products in violation of the FDCA.
For trademark applications filed before December 20, 2018, the examiners may allow applicants to amend their applications to claim a December 20, 2018 filing date to overcome a refusal based on the CSA. As the trademark can still be denied for the other reasons as discussed above, examiners may also allow applicants to amend the original filing basis to an “intent-to-use” basis. With the date change and the “intent to use” change, the examiner will conduct a new search of conflicting trademarks in the USPTO’s records. If applicants choose not to amend their application, they can abandon the application and re-file or respond to the examiner’s office action with evidence to oppose the examiner’s determination. As it relates to hemp cultivation or production services, the examiners will investigate the applicant’s legal ability to cultivate and produce hemp. Per the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp must be produced “under license or authorization by a state, territory, or tribal government in accordance with a plan approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for the commercial production of hemp.” However, the USDA has not approved any state, territory, or tribal government hemp production plan. Therefore, hemp cultivation or production services trademark applications could still be denied despite the 2018 Farm Bill.
While there is still uncertainty about the future for granting federal cannabis or cannabis-related trademarks, applicants can seek state trademark registration or protect their rights against copiers at common law. Each trademark strategy must be tailored to the applicant’s business and products.
Written by: Stan Sater and David H. Pierce