An issue we’ve seen with increasing frequency among clients and prospective clients alike is a misunderstanding of the basic requirements for obtaining federal trademark protection in the United States. We’ve worked through the issues surrounding federal registration of cannabis and cannabis-goods before, and it is common practice in the cannabis industry to obtain federal trademark protection for ancillary goods and services that do not violate the Controlled Substances Act. But the key to obtaining such trademark protection is that you must either be using the applied-for mark in commerce, or you must have a “bona fide intent” to do so. This post will explore what exactly it means to have a bona fide intent to use a mark in commerce, and what level of proof will be required to substantiate it.
A common scenario is that a cannabis business owner thinks of a name that sounds great–one they would ideally like to use on their cannabis goods and services–but they know they can’t obtain federal trademark protection for anything that is federally illegal. So, they start brainstorming similar goods and services for which they could register, oftentimes looking to large, established companies’ trademark registrations for inspiration. The problem, however, is that the cannabis company often does not have a plan in place for actually selling those goods or services. This can be a big problem.
Recall that there are two bases on which one can file a U.S. federal trademark application: actual use or intent-to-use. An application based on actual use requires proof of that use in the form of photo specimens showing the mark on the goods and a date of first sale. An intent-to-use application, on the other hand, requires “only” that the applicant have a bona fide intent to use the mark in commerce. This is a great tool for start-ups to ensure that their brand is protected while they’re getting their business off the ground. But it also raises the question of what truly constitutes a “bona fide intent” to use a mark?
Section 1(b) of the Trademark Act allows federal trademark applications to be filed based on a “bona fide intent” to use the mark in commerce, and this intent must be stated in the application under penalty of perjury. The Act further states that an intent-to-use trademark filing must be “under circumstances showing good faith.” This language indicates that there must be some objective evidence of good faith, a position that courts have consistently agreed with.
While the USPTO does not require that an applicant submit proof of their bona fide intent at the time of application, an application may be challenged on the basis of lack of bona fide intent at the time the application was filed. This is why it is critical to be able to prove your bona fide intent to use the mark in commerce at the time of filing.
Case law, including Honda Motor Co. v. FriedrichWinkelmann, provides some guidance for applicants who are unsure if they’ve met the threshold of having a bona fide intent to use their mark in commerce, and helps us understand what types of objective evidence of a bona fide intent must be shown. The Honda case involved an opposition by Honda to FriedrichWinkelmann’s application to register VIC for “vehicles for transportation on land, air or water” and related goods. The Trademark Office in this case stated that in order to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to its intent to use on a motion for summary judgment, an applicant must rely on specific facts that establish the “existence of an ability and willingness to use the mark in the United States to identify [the goods in the application] at the time of the filing of the application.”
This case, among others, reaffirms the importance of having documentary evidence to support your bona fide intent to use the mark in commerce at the time of filing. This evidence may consist of business plans, marketing plans, or correspondence with potential manufacturers, distributors or licensees, but there is no bright line test as to how much or what kind of evidence will be sufficient. When filing a U.S. trademark application, it is important to consult with your attorney about the validity of your intent to use your proposed mark. Sometimes, it may make sense to wait to file until you have a business plan in place, or until your intent is easily substantiated.
If you have any burning questions about this topic, or anything else related to intellectual property protection in the cannabis industry, be sure to tune into our free webinar, “Intellectual Property in the Cannabis Industry” on May 17th from 12pm – 1:15pm PDT. The webinar will be moderated by Vince Sliwoski, and I’ll be joined by John Mansfield and Mike Atkins to talk about trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets, and patents, all in the context of the cannabis industry. Hope to see you there!