As we’ve previously written, my law firm, which does considerable international trade and China law work in addition to our regulated substances practice, has on all fronts been getting an influx of clients complaining about counterfeit cannabis goods and seeking our help in dealing with the problem. The problem of counterfeit goods in the cannabis industry has only continued to grow over the last year.
I was interviewed earlier this year about the lawsuits brought by Roor pipes against nearly 200 smoke shops and convenience stores, alleging those stores are selling counterfeit Roor bongs in violation of Roor’s U.S. federal trademark registration. Though those lawsuits may be on uncertain ground from a federal trademark law perspective, Grenco Science, maker of the G-Pen brand vaporizer, recently found success in federal court against counterfeiters.
Earlier this year, Grenco sued more than 65 different online retailers for selling counterfeit G-Pen products. Most of the offending companies were based in China, which is consistent with the majority of the counterfeit cases my firm handles. Some of the lawsuits settled out of court, but many of the Chinese companies failed to respond to Grenco’s complaints filed in court – also a common occurrence when trying to pin down a Chinese company in U.S. court. In light of this, a federal judge in Illinois granted Grenco $47 million in damages, which equates to $1 million from each of the 47 companies found to have infringed Grenco’s federal trademarks, as well as injunctions against each of the companies ordering them to cease sales of the counterfeit goods.
Of course, getting a judgment against a Chinese company for trademark infringement is only half the battle – Collecting on these judgments is another matter. Oftentimes, U.S. judgments against Chinese companies are worth very little. A U.S. judgment against a Chinese company can lead to collection, but for that to occur, one must know about the operations of the Chinese company and one must be prepared to be legally creative in figuring out how and where to act in using the U.S. judgment to go after the Chinese company’s assets. We’ve written extensively about this process on our firm’s China Law Blog, and you can read more about it here and here.
Given the difficulty in enforcing these judgments it is critical that you as a business owner take preventative steps to ward off counterfeiters, and to know what to do in the unfortunate event someone does counterfeit one of your goods. And as we tell all our clients: investing in these preventative steps now is always way less expensive than fighting a legal battle (and trying to enforce a judgment) in court down the road.
So what preventative steps should cannabis businesses take to address counterfeiting? Prevention hinges on first identifying your intellectual property (IP), determining what categories it falls into, and then protecting it accordingly in the relevant jurisdictions. The design of a novel device like a water pipe, for example, could be subject to patent protection. Though we’ve blogged extensively about the difficulty in obtaining federal cannabis trademarks, federal patent law does not contain the same “legal use in commerce” requirement, or a prohibition on “immoral or scandalous” matter. A patent is the grant of a property right to the inventor, issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), and this property right gives the inventor “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention in the United States or importing the invention into the United States.” Patents are often the most powerful tool in fighting counterfeit goods.
Patent infringement is not the only way counterfeiters can rip off products. Oftentimes, when talking about counterfeits, we’re talking about trademark infringement (as in the G-Pen and Roor cases) rather than patent infringement. A counterfeiter could, for example, slap your logo on its vape pen, exploiting the goodwill and notoriety you’ve established through your brand. Of course, the best way to prevent trademark infringement is to register your trademark with the USPTO. Though it is not possible to obtain a federal trademark for use on goods that violate the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), it is often possible to obtain trademark protection for goods that do not violate the CSA, like many smokers’ accessories. A trademark gives the owner the exclusive right to use their mark on the specified goods in commerce, and it gives the owner a right to seek remedy in federal court in the event of infringement.
If you are having your products manufactured in China (or anywhere else overseas), as is the case these days with so many of our clients, you need to protect your IP there as well. Because if you don’t register your trademark or your design patent in China, someone else almost certainly will and then that someone else will be able to stop your products from leaving China because those products violate their intellectual property! For more on this, check out China: Do Just ONE Thing: Register Your Trademarks AND Your Design Patents, Part 1 and China: Do Just ONE Thing: Register Your Trademarks AND Your Design Patents, Part 2. You should also check out Your China Factory as your Toughest Competitor for the contractual steps you need to take to prevent your own manufacturer in China from selling your product worldwide, and likely at prices far lower than you can ever match.
But logistically, how does enforcing your IP rights against counterfeiters play out? Typically, it doesn’t make sense to take the alleged infringer straight to court. Litigation is expensive, and there is often room to negotiate. When you know who the infringing party is, your attorney can contact them with a cease and desist letter directly. But when the party is, for example, a third party seller on a larger platform like Amazon or Alibaba, tracking down the infringer is much more difficult. See also China Counterfeiting: 8 Common Myths and Alibaba and Small Business Owners.
The protocol for dealing with online retail platforms in taking down counterfeit goods will vary depending on the company. With every online retail platform with which our lawyers have worked (be they in the United States or in China), the process is expedited greatly when our client alleging a counterfeit is able to offer up proof of its own IP rights. This is particularly true with trademarks, where infringement is often apparent, and the retail platform can quickly decide to suspend a counterfeiter’s account. Without verifiable IP rights, the retail platform is put in a difficult position of having to figure out who has the right to sell what. This involves complicated legal analysis, and takes substantial time and resources, as well as back-and-forth with both parties. In the meantime, you’re likely losing business. See How To Remove Counterfeits From Alibaba.
So the lesson here is two-fold. First, make sure you’ve identified your intellectual property and that you’ve taken every step possible to register and protect it. Second, if you suspect a company is selling a counterfeit of your product, contact your attorney immediately and develop a strategy for blocking the counterfeit sales, whether through direct communication with the counterfeiter, or by working with the relevant online retail platform. There is often much that can be done to stop a counterfeiter before resorting to filing a lawsuit, and ending up with potentially un-collectable judgment.