Cannabis patentsOur previous post in this series discussed the legal sources for cannabis patent rights. This post and later posts will address some questions about what patents could mean for the cannabis industry.

Today’s question is: Do cannabis patents create monopolies?

Today’s short answer is: Yes and No, but probably less than you might think.

A patent is a government-created monopoly, giving the patent holder an exclusive right to make, use and sell the patented invention. A patentee doesn’t have to let anyone else use her patent (there is no mandatory licensing in the United States), or even use the patent herself. Once the patent expires, it belongs to the public forever. Though the law abhors a monopoly, patents are an exception. The theory is that granting inventors a few years of exclusivity encourages the creation of products beneficial to society.

A patent is not an unlimited monopoly, however. To start, a patent is only good for a limited time, usually about 20 years from the patent filing date. Since it can take three or more years to get a patent granted, that often means a patent lasts 17 years or less in the real world. Patents cannot be renewed; once the patent expires, anyone can practice it at no cost.  Compared with trademarks, which could have indefinite terms, or copyrights, some of which can last as long as a century, the patent term is short.

Also, only inventions that are new and not obvious can be patented. If something has been publicly used or on sale for at least a year, it’s probably unpatentable by anyone. The legal meaning of “obvious” is different and more complicated than the dictionary definition. For our purposes, if a claimed invention could be readily made by a skilled person who was familiar with the prior art, it is obvious. These two requirements of novelty and nonobviousness are intended to ensure that the patent system narrowly rewards creators, not merely collectors or aggregators of products to which the public already has access.

Perhaps most importantly, a patent’s coverage is often much narrower than it appears. You can consider a patent to be like a real estate deed. The deed for your house may refer to the property at “1st and Main,” but that doesn’t mean you own everything at that address. Your actual property lines are set out in the deed’s legal description, e.g., by detailed surveying designations. Similarly, the scope of a patent is limited by the claim or claims, which are found in the last part of the patent following the words “I claim” or “What is claimed.” Here is a hypothetical cannabis utility patent claim, based on an issued patent:

What is claimed is:

1) A cannabis plant that produces a flower comprising:

[a] a terpene profile where myrcene is not the dominant terpene;
{b] a terpene profile defined as terpinolene, alpha phelladrene, and myrcene;
[c] a terpene oil content greater than 1.5%; and
[d] a CDB content of less than 3%.

Properly interpreting a patent claim is a notoriously squirrely activity. Even if you understand the technical features of the claim, there is an entire body of often-conflicting law on claim interpretation. But one principle is paramount in determining the scope of a claim: the patent covers only inventions that have each characteristic, known in patent law as an “element,” set out in the claim. If a plant had elements [a], [c] and [d], but did not have terpinolene in its terpene profile as required by element [d], it would not infringe that patent.

Our next post will consider more issues about patents and their effects in the cannabis industry.