A recent post here looked at the “Gorilla Glue” trademark dispute between a cannabis business and a glue maker. As we’ve often seen, the cannabis business gave up its brand, rather than litigating. Sometimes a settlement is the best choice. When the cannabis business is the smaller, newer, less financially-sound company, facing an established brand holder with more resources for litigation, it may be smart for the cannabis business to spend its money on rebranding rather than on litigation. But settlement is not the only option when a cannabis business uses a mark similar to the mark used by a non-cannabis business.
Imagine a hypothetical business, “Naturewave Furniture, Inc.” (“NFurn”). NFurn has been selling furniture for 25 years throughout the United States to consumers who want environmentally-friendly products. In 1995, NFurn federally registered “Naturewave” in international trademark class 20, “furniture.” Though NFurn is a player in the enviro-friendly products market, it is not a household name. Now imagine Naturewave Cannabis, LLP (“NCanna”), an Oregon cannabis producer that also sells branded rolling papers. In June 2016, NCanna registered “Naturewave” with the Oregon Secretary of State under class 131, “agricultural products,” and class 134, “tobacco & smokers articles.”
NFurn sues NCanna in federal court, alleging 1) NCanna’s use of Naturewave infringes on its trademark because confusion with NFurn’s Naturewave® mark is likely, and 2) NCanna’s use of Naturewave® to sell cannabis and rolling papers is diluting or tarnishing its mark. But NCanna has invested heavily in marketing its cannabis products and accessories under the Naturewave name, and its Naturewave cannabis products are popular and profitable. Does NCanna have good defenses to either claim? You bet it does.
The basic question for trademark infringement is whether consumers would mistake the source of the goods. Here, the goods offered by each party—furniture and cannabis—are unrelated. No stores sell both furniture and cannabis and the marketing channels for these two products do not overlap. The customers for both goods are sophisticated, careful shoppers. People looking for enviro-furniture usually spend at least 10 hours before buying a particular item. Cannabis consumers are known for research that borders on the obsessive, as shown by the proliferation of sites like MassRoots, Leafly, and Fresh Toast. Neither company is going to move into the other’s product line. Though NCanna had heard of Naturewave Furniture, the words “nature” and “wave” have different connotations in the different industries. NCanna isn’t branding itself as environmentally friendly, and NFurn isn’t suggesting its furniture will let the buyer “ride a wave.” It is unlikely a customer would think NFurn is the source of the cannabis sold by NCanna, or that one of NCanna’s customers would walk into a natural furniture store looking to buy cannabis.
The claim for tarnishment requires a different analysis. Under trademark law, the owner of a famous trademark can sue for using its mark in a way that dilutes or tarnishes the mark. There is no need to show a likelihood of confusion in a tarnishment claim; you only need to show that your mark is famous and similar to the accused mark. Although it is easier to list famous trademarks—Coke®, Amazon®, Google®, Starbucks®, Xerox®—than it is to define “famous,” generally a highly distinctive mark that is very well-known throughout the market, and has been used extensively and continuously for a long time, can be found to be famous. NFurn argues that NCanna’s use of Naturewave® with a traditionally illegal product will tarnish or dilute its mark. But is Naturewave® “famous” under trademark law? Arguably not, at least on our hypothetical facts. In that case, NFurn would not have a claim for dilution.
The upshot of this imagined case is that NCanna could evaluate NFurn’s lawsuit and know it had solid arguments to defend the case. The strength of the litigation position is, however, only one factor. Ultimately, whether to litigate a trademark dispute or settle or seek a coexistence agreement is a business decision for the cannabis company.
- What NOT to do with your Cannabis Brand: The Gorilla Glue Trademark Infringement Dispute
- SCOTUS Rules Offensive Trademarks Are Entitled to First Amendment Protection: Good for Cannabis?
- Another Cannabis Trademark Application Bites the Dust
- Cannabis Trademarks: Back to the Basics