If you have been looking into protecting your cannabusiness' intellectual property, you may have heard the term “trade dress” tossed around. Trade dress is a legal term for the visual components, design/shape, and packaging of a product. It encompasses the “bells & whistles,” so to speak, and is generally intended to protect the overall visual appearance of a product, minus any elements that are functional. The name comes from its historical origins, i.e., how a product is “dressed up.” And even though trade dress is a commonly forgotten right, it is actually quite important when it comes to cannabis law.
Trade dress protection has been extended to everything from restaurant “atmospheres” (Two Pesos, Inc. v. Taco Cabana, Inc., 505 U.S. 763 (1992); Fuddruckers, Inc. v. Doc’s B.R. Others, Inc., 826 F.2d 837, 843 (1987)) to the unique setting of a golf course’s “signature hole.” (Pebble Beach Co. v. Tour 18 I, Ltd., 942 F.Supp. 1513 (S.D.Tex. 1996)). The gist of it is the “dressing” must be distinctive enough that consumers identify the source of your product by looking at its total appearance and packaging.
So can cannabusiness owners get trade dress protection? As with many questions in marijuana law, the answer is yes and no.
Just as with a trademark, you have common law rights to your trade dress that you can assert in bringing a lawsuit against infringers that pass off their products as yours. The basis is section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, which establishes civil liability for false designations of origin. However, trade dress owners asserting common law rights in court have the additional burden of showing that the “dressing” serves a non-functional purpose. For this reason (as well as the statutory damages established in the Lanham Act) it is preferable to obtain trade dress registration beforehand wherever possible.
Here we run into the same issues as with trademark: CSA-based rejections. The USPTO has caught on to the emerging cannabis industry, and currently has four trademark examining attorneys that that look at all of the cannabis-based applications coming in. There are many ways around a CSA refusal, and many of the strategies we have discussed for trademarks apply here as well.
If you are thinking of trade dress protection already, then good news – you’re already ahead of the game. Speak with our cannabis law attorneys when you’re ready to take the next step!