As ardent followers of this blog are well aware, one of my favorite pastimes is keeping tabs on who is suing whom in the cannabis industry for trademark infringement. These lawsuits serve as great examples for my clients of what NOT to do when choosing a brand for their company. The last couple of years have provided a couple of big-name cannabis trademark lawsuits, including the Gorilla Glue dispute and the Tapatio Foods lawsuit.
This time, it’s the United Parcel Service (UPS) suing a group of cannabis delivery companies for trademark infringement. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on February 13, 2019 and alleges trademark infringement against United Pot Smokers, UPS420, and THCPlant, all of which market and sell cannabis products. These companies, according to the complaint, offer delivery and logistics services via the websites www.upsgreen.com and www.ups420.com.
In its complaint, UPS accuses the defendants of infringing its family of trademarks, which includes its famous shield logo, and states that the defendants “intended to capitalize off UPS’s extensive goodwill and reputation.” UPS allegedly sent multiple cease and desist letters to the defendants, which were unwisely ignored.
The lawsuit includes claims for trademark infringement, trademark dilution, false designation of origin, deceptive advertising, and unfair business practices, and includes a request for damages, an end to defendants’ infringement, and control over defendants’ websites.
We’ve made this point many times before, but it warrants repeating: Cannabis companies are not immune from trademark infringement claims, and must choose brands that do not infringe the rights of third parties, including third parties outside of the cannabis industry. For ease of reference, here are several past blog posts relating to trademark infringement, and how to choose a brand that won’t get you sued:
- Cannabis Branding: Choosing a Mark that Won’t Get You Sued
- Another Cannabis Trademark Application Bites the Dust
- Organic Marijuana: Not Exactly
- Cannabis Trademarks: “Deadwood” Policies Could Implicate Cannabis Registrations
- Cannabis Trademarks and Legal Use in Commerce
And here are the factors a court will consider in assessing whether one mark is likely to be confused with another, proving trademark infringement (AMF Inc. v. Sleekcraft Boats):
- Strength of the mark;
- Proximity of the goods;
- Similarity of the marks;
- Evidence of actual confusion;
- Marketing channels used;
- Type of goods and degree of care likely to be exercised by the purchaser;
- Defendant’s intent in selecting the mark; and
- Likelihood of expansion of the product lines.
The two most basic factors I recommend our cannabis clients evaluate before they select a brand are 1) is your mark similar to or the same as an existing mark, and 2) are you intentionally “riffing” off an existing brand? Remember that parody is not a defense to trademark infringement that will typically fly in a commercial setting. When you choose a mark as a “parody” of an existing brand, chances are you’re actually infringing a registered trademark, and possibly diluting a famous mark, which is exactly what is alleged here, in the UPS case. And the fact that you knew of the senior trademark would absolutely play against you in litigation, as your infringement would be deemed willful.
These two factors are only the beginning of the analysis. There are instances where similar, or even the same brand names can coexist if the goods those brands are used on are completely different and marketed through separate channels to disparate groups of consumers. The analysis for likelihood of confusion can be quite complex.
Before adopting a new brand name, we recommend consulting with an experienced trademark attorney and we also recommend having them perform a trademark clearance search to ensure your brand won’t be infringing any existing registrations.