Tag Archives: utility

Protecting Your Cannabis Plant IP

By Brian J. Amos, Ph.D, Charles R. Macedo, M.S
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You’ve bred a new strain of cannabis, or perhaps discovered an excellent new hybrid outgrowing the other plants in your cannabis plot. Can you claim the new plant as yours and legally protect it? The short answer is potentially yes. The long answer follows below:

Plant Patents


Since a 1930s’ Act passed by Congress, the US government has permitted a person land, and (ii) asexually reproduces that plant, to apply for a Plant Patent. If granted, the Plant Patent will protect the patent holder’s right to “exclude others from making, using, selling, offering for sale and importing the plant, or any of its parts.” In other words, if you have a Plant Patent, you have a monopoly on that particular plant and its progeny plants, as long as they are asexually reproduced (for example, from cuttings – i.e. a clone). There is a hole in the protection – once you’ve sold or given anyone the plant they can use the seed or pollen from it without your permission.

Originally this sort of coverage was thought to be useful for things like new apple varieties, which are often from spontaneous new mutants found by farmers in their orchards (i.e. “cultivated land”). But is it possible this coverage can be extended to cannabis plants? The answer is yes. Unlike the traditional refusal of the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) to register “offensive” or “disparaging” trademarks on moral grounds, US patent law does not have any well-established “morality exception.” And, indeed, Plant Patents have already been issued for cannabis strains. In December 2016, US Plant Patent No. 27,475 was issued for a cannabis plant called “Ecuadorian Sativa.” This plant is said to be distinct in its exceptionally high level of a particular terpene (limonene) at levels of 10 to 20 times the usual range, and is a single variety of a cross between what are commonly named as Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica.

How do you get a Plant Patent? Firstly – a Plant Patent is not automatically granted. The application has to be written correctly, and the USPTO will examine it to determine if your plant is new and distinct (non-obvious) from other known varieties, that it is described as completely as is reasonably possible, and that it has been asexually propagated. In addition, if the plant was “discovered” as opposed to “invented” then the USPTO will need to be shown that it was found in a cultivated area. A plant discovered simply growing wild cannot be patented. If you pass these hurdles, you will have a Plant Patent that lasts for 20 years.

Utility Patent
 

Another type of patent that can protect your new cannabis plant, and much more besides that, is a Utility Patent. Utility Patents have a longer history than Plant Patents in the US and, while they may be harder to obtain, a Utility Patent gives you broader protection than a Plant Patent. A Utility Patent can cover not only the plant itself, but if properly written can also cover parts of the plant, uses of the plant, methods used to create the plant, methods for processing the plant, and even edibles (like brownies) that contain an extract from that plant. If granted, the Utility Patent will protect your right, for 20 years from the date you filed the application, to “exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States.” An additional protection is that if the invention you claim in the patent is a “process,” you can assert the Utility Patent to exclude others from importing into the United States any products made by that process. Of course, given that present U.S. federal law regards cannabis as a DEA Schedule 1 drug, this importation blocking right is currently irrelevant. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that utility patents have a 20-year term, and Federal law may shift during that time.

Utility Patents are harder to obtain than Plant Patents. The USPTO will examine your application to determine whether what you are claiming protection on (for example: plants, cells, methods or processes) is new and non-obvious, does not cover a naturally occurring product or process, and is fully described. The simple description used in a Plant Patent is not enough for the more rigorous description needed in a Utility Patent. In addition, meeting the “enablement requirement” of a Utility Patent may require you to have the plant strain deposited with a recognized depository which will maintain that specimen plant – and you must agree that the public is permitted to access that deposit if a Utility Patent is granted to you.

So has the US government granted any patents on cannabis plants? Yes it has, multiple patents. A recent example is US Utility Patent No. 9,095,554 granted to Biotech Institute LLC (Los Angeles), which covers hybrid cannabis plants of a particular type with a CBD content of greater than 3%, as well as methods of breeding or producing them. Biotech Institute was also granted claims in the same Utility Patent for cannabis extracts from those plants, and edibles containing the extract. In this case, the plant samples were deposited with the NCIMB, which is a recognized depository in Aberdeen, Scotland. It should be noted that while the depository has to be internationally recognized, it does not have to be in the US. Another corporation, GW Pharma Ltd. (a UK firm), was early in the game and, according to USPTO records, has more than 40 U.S. Utility Patents issued relating to cannabis in some form or another, the earliest dating back to 2001.

Plant Variety Protection Act


A third type of protection is potentially available under the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) if you breed a new cannabis plant by sexual reproduction. Colloquially, this protection is more often known as “breeder’s rights” and the USDA administers it. This right is not mutually exclusive with other protections – in 2001 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that that sexually reproduced plants eligible for protection under the PVPA are also eligible for Utility Patents.

In theory, obtaining a PVPA certificate is a relatively straightforward procedure for seed reproduced plants, which are new, distinct, uniform and stable. If you are granted a PVP certificate it will last for 20 years from the grant date. You can bring a civil action against someone who sells, offers for sale, delivers, ships or reproduces the covered plant. So have any PVPA Certificates been issued for new cannabis strains? We have reviewed the USDA published certificates for the last two years and have not found any. Why is this? One obstacle may be what happens after you file your application. The US code governing these certificates states that a seed sample “will be deposited and replenished periodically in a public repository.” However, the government body that administers the PVPA, the USDA, specifically requires that all applicants submit a seed sample of at least 3,000 seeds with an 85% or more germination rate within 3 months of filing the application. Sending cannabis seeds in the mail to a federal agency – that’s a deterrent given current uncertainty. Ironically, the location that the seeds must be sent to is Fort Collins in Colorado, a state where cannabis has been decriminalized. The USDA’s published PVPA guidance describes courier delivery of the seed sample to the Fort Collins repository, but does not mention hand delivery of the seed samples. We contacted the seed depository and were informally told that seed samples can be deposited by hand delivery – but this still entails handing over to a federal agency actual seeds of a plant which is a DEA Schedule 1 drug. In any event, no PVPA Certificates that have yet been issued for new cannabis strains. It is possible that a new federal administration might deschedule cannabis, permitting an easier route to PVPA coverage. But for the present at least, PVPA protection may be hard to obtain.

Notice

The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of Amster, Rothstein & Ebenstein, LLP, or its clients. Nothing in this article is to be construed as legal advice or as a substitute for legal advice.

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 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.

Marijuana Matters

Patent Options Available for Breeding Cannabis

By David C. Kotler, Esq.
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Patent No.: 909554. Date of patent: August 4, 2015. Years from now, historians and academics may look back on this patent number and date as a watershed mark in the evolution of legal cannabis. Feel free to read the 147 pages of the patent documents but, in short, it “leads to many innovations, provides compositions and methods for breeding, production, processing and use of specialty cannabis.” It was the first time that the U.S. Patent Office (USPTO) had issued a patent for a plant containing significant amounts of THC. One USPTO spokesman recently discussed with a journalist that “there are no special statutory requirements or restrictions applied to marijuana plants.” The following is a broad, and I mean really broad, overview of the options available to protect intellectual property within the cannabis species and strain realm.

Generally speaking, to be patent eligible, an invention must be useful, it must be new, it cannot be obvious and it must be described in a manner so that people of skill in the relevant specialty can understand what the invention is, make it and use it without engaging in undue experimentation. In terms of cannabis, essentially the breeder must have created a new and non-obvious strain over what already exists that is useful such as being highly resistant to molds or having a specific concentration of CBD.

Breeders potentially have a number of options available to them, despite the common belief otherwise. In the U.S. there are five types of intellectual property protection that breeders can obtain for new plant varieties or their use of clones:

One may seek protection for seeds and tubers, known as Plant Variety Protection. A tuber is essentially a swelled root that forms a storage organ. The Plant Variety Protection Office provides this protection. To apply for Plant Variety Protection, the applicant submits information to show that the variety is new, distinct, uniform and stable.

For asexually propagated plants except for tubers, a Plant Patent may be sought. These are sought through the USPTO. This is relatively inexpensive compared with a Utility Patent covering the genetics.

Trade secrets are often used to protect inventions that will not be commercially available or cannot be reverse engineered. For example, if a new strain is invented but is only commercially available in its final form, trade secret protection may be the best form. The most important thing to remember is that a company must follow a strict set of requirements to keep the trade secret confidential.

The last patent type protection could be through a Utility Patent. A Utility Patent can be issued for any type of plant showing its utility. These are issued by the USPTO. Seeking and obtaining a Utility Patent is expensive and complex.

In addition to Patent Protection, breeders may seek Contractual Agreements restricting the use of the clones (i.e. a material use agreement). The parameters that a breeder wishes to craft can essentially be crafted into the language of any type of agreement that is drafted to memorialize the relationship and terms between the parties.

A few broad-stroke items to keep in mind with regard to patents particularly relative to the patenting of cannabis strains and the like: First, is the passage of the America Invents Act which among other changes allowed for the U.S. to transition from a First-to-Invent patent system to a system where priority is given to the first inventor to file a patent application. Second, there are the potential bars based on different types of prior use.

Any discussion about the foregoing topic should necessarily include the question: Is it really good for the cannabis industry and its evolution? The dialogue moves out of one steeped in tradition, lure of trips through mountain passages, and potentially patient benefit or in search of higher quality and into connotations of business law and big businesses sweeping in to take over. It is an expensive process. It may be inevitable. In the meantime, protect yourself as best you can and as you see fit.