marijuana trademark canada
Some U.S. companies are looking north for trademark protection

With U.S. federal trademarks being impossible to obtain for cannabis goods and services that violate the Controlled Substances Act, my trademark clients are beginning to ask questions about their options for international trademark protection. Canada, having legalized cannabis and being our closest neighbor, is usually one of the first countries my clients are interested in.

According to a recent piece written by a group of Canadian attorneys at Torys LLP, the number of trademark filings covering cannabis-related goods and services in Canada has increased dramatically since talk of cannabis legalization began.

Canada has made some big changes to its Trademarks Act that will likely be implemented early next year, and these changes will make it much easier to register trademarks. In particular, Canada will remove the requirement that a trademark be “used” prior to registration issuing. In the U.S., an applicant can file a trademark application prior to making use of their mark in commerce if they have a bona fide intent to do so (this is called an “intent to use” application), but in order for a registration to actually issue, the applicant will need to submit a “Statement of Use” to the USPTO within six months from the date the Trademark Office gives a “Notice of Allowance.” One of the policy reasons for this “use” requirement in the U.S. is to prevent trademark “squatting,” where individuals register marks without any intent to use them in order to either prevent others from making use of the marks, or to extract payment from those wishing to do so.

It is indisputable that by removing the “use” requirement for trademark registration, Canada will be opening the doors to “trademark trolls” and “squatters.” According to the Torys attorneys, there are nearly 2,000 trademarks listed on the Canadian trademarks register with goods or services containing the words “cannabis” or “marijuana.” More than half of those applications were filed since January 2017 (apparently, as of five years ago, fewer than 100 such applications had been filed, making for a 1,900 percent increase in cannabis-related Canadian trademark applications). This rush to file for trademark protection makes sense, where companies will be forced to either register their marks, or risk losing them to third parties or squatters.

But given how relatively straightforward it is to obtain a trademark for cannabis goods or services in Canada, there are many restrictions placed on how those cannabis trademarks can be used via the proposed cannabis regulatory framework. For example, cannabis trademarks may not be used to promote cannabis goods:

  • In a manner that appeals to children;
  • By means of a testimonial or endorsement;
  • By depicting a person, character or animal, whether real or fictional;
  • By presenting the product or brand elements in a manner that evokes a positive or negative emotion about or image of, a way of life such as one that includes glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk, or daring;
  • By using information that is false, misleading or deceptive, or that is likely to create an erroneous impression about the product’s characteristics, value, quantity, composition, strength, concentration, potency, purity, quality, merit, safety, health effects or health risks;
  • By using or displaying a brand element or names of persons authorized to produce, sell or distribute cannabis in connection with the sponsorship of a person, entity, event, activity or facility, or on a facility used for sports, or a cultural event or activity; and
  • By communicating information about price and distribution (except at point of sale).

With the exception of the fourth point, which could be construed as somewhat vague and certainly subjective, many of these restrictions on advertising and labeling are contained in the various state cannabis regulatory regimes here in the U.S., so these limitations should come as no surprise to cannabis business owners.

For cannabis business owners in the U.S., it may make strategic sense to consult with a trademark attorney with experience filing cannabis-related applications to consider filing for trademark protection in Canada. Successful brands will be those that think globally, not nationally.