Protecting Your Innovative Cannabis Strains With a Strong Intellectual Property Strategy: Part 2 – Patents for New Cannabis Strains

By Dr. Travis Bliss
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In the second part of the series, we dive into patent protection for new and innovative strains and how to use it to your advantage.

In the first installment of this three-part series we explored the reasons why cannabis breeders should adopt a strong IP strategy sooner rather than later and looked briefly at the types of IP that those breeders and growers should be considering. In this second installment, we will examine in more detail patent protection for innovative new varieties of cannabis and how one can use that patent protection to further their business objectives.

What is a patent and what do I do with one?

A patent is a right granted by the government to protect a new and useful invention. Importantly, a patent gives its owner an exclusionary right as opposed to a right to do something – the patent owner has the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, offering to sell, or importing the invention (or, for a plant, any of its plant parts) for the term of the patent, which is 20 years for the types of patents that can be used to protect new cannabis varieties.

Because it is an exclusionary right, there are essentially two things that a patent owner can use a patent to do: 1) disallow anyone else from producing and selling that variety (or any of its parts) so that the patent owner is able to capture all of the sales for that variety, or 2) use license contracts to allow other growers to grow the variety while paying royalties back to the patent holder. The latter option can often be beneficial because it can greatly expand production of the variety by licensing to multiple growers. However, this does require some oversight on the part of the patent holder to make sure that the product those growers are producing is high quality –growers who produce poor quality product can hurt the existing brand. Cannabis breeders should consider these options up front when formulating their IP strategy.

Which type of patent should I use to protect my new variety?

As a further consideration, there are two different types of patents that can be used to protect new plant varieties and there are multiple factors to consider when determining which one to pursue.

U.S. Plant Patents are a special type of intellectual property that is used solely for the protection of asexually/vegetatively reproduced plant varieties. Traditionally, plant patents have been used to protect new varieties of ornamental and fruit trees and shrubs, such as a new variety of rose bush or a new variety of apple tree, such as the ‘Honeycrisp’ apple tree, patented in 1990. This type of patent has recently been used to protect a new cannabis variety called ‘Ecuadorian sativa’, while several other cannabis varieties, ‘Midnight’, ‘Erez’, and ‘Avidekel’ varieties are awaiting plant patent approval.

On the other hand, a “utility patent” can be used for new “compositions” (e.g., a new type of grow light) or new types of “methods” (e.g., a new method of extracting compounds from cannabis or a new method of growing cannabis to produce higher THC content). This type of patent can also be used to protect a new plant variety so long as the applicant can demonstrate that the variety is novel and not obvious over what was already known in the art. To date, two utility patents have been issued to protect cannabis varieties that exhibit certain cannabinoid and terpene profiles (U.S. Patent Nos. 9,095,554 and 9,370,164), and other similar utility patent applications are also pending (e.g., U.S. Patent Pub. No. 2014/0298511).

One of the main determining factors in deciding which type of patent to pursue is the nature of the invention. Growers and breeders will likely want to seek a plant patent if they have developed a new variety of cannabis plant: 1) which was made using simple breeding techniques, 2) which can be stably reproduced in an asexual manner (such as by cuttings and cloning), and 3) which is different from its parents and certain other strains on the market, but not completely distinct from everything that already exists. On the other hand, growers and breeders may want to consider a utility patent if they have developed a new variety of cannabis plant: 1) which has unique features in comparison to everything else that exists today (such as a unique disease resistance or chemical makeup), 2) which has unique features that can be demonstrated by some sort of biological or chemical test, and 3) that can be reproduced either asexually or by seed. It is also important to keep in mind that these two routes are not mutually exclusive – one could apply for both types of patent if the variety satisfies the criteria for both.

Though there are numerous similarities between the processes for obtaining both types of patents, there are also clear differences that should be taken into consideration when making the decision about which type of patent to seek. For instance, the grant rate for plant patents is much higher, meaning there is a higher likelihood that the plant patent application will eventually be granted compared to a utility patent application. Further, plant patent applications typically move quicker through the Patent Office, frequently being granted in approximately 18 months, while utility patent applications typically take two to four years (or more) to issue.

Another factor that should be considered is cost. Because a plant patent application is much simpler to prepare and typically moves through the Patent Office more swiftly, the cost for obtaining a plant patent is generally significantly lower than for a utility patent.

Determining which type of patent to pursue requires consideration of numerous factors. However, it is important to keep in mind that, regardless of which type of patent a grower or breeder seeks, there are certain time limitations that can impact the right to obtain a patent. For example, patent protection can only be sought if the variety to be patented has not been sold, offered for sale, or otherwise made publicly available more than one year before the patent application is filed. After that time, the invention becomes part of the “public domain.” So if a breeder chooses to wait to seek patent protection for a new variety, they risk losing the ability to ever get that protection.

Clearly, growers and breeders have to weigh several options when formulating a patent strategy, including what type of patent to pursue and what to do with the patent once they obtain it. Thinking through these issues early on allows the cannabis breeder an opportunity to formulate a strategy that is most beneficial in furthering their business objectives. Additionally, regardless of the type of patent strategy used, it is often helpful to combine it with trademark and branding strategy, which allows the business to utilize a more comprehensive approach to IP for their innovative strains. The third installment of this series will focus on trademarks for cannabis products and some unique issues that facing the cannabis industry today.

Legal disclaimer: The material provided in this article is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. The opinions expressed herein are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of the firm or any individual attorney. The provision of this information and your receipt and/or use of it (1) is not provided in the course of and does not create or constitute an attorney-client relationship, (2) is not intended as a solicitation, (3) is not intended to convey or constitute legal advice, and (4) is not a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a qualified attorney. You should not act upon any such information without first seeking qualified professional counsel on your specific matter.

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