Cannabis is undoubtedly a polarizing subject. Some people like Anheuser Busch heir Adolphus Busch V are jumping in head first starting cannabis companies. Other companies want nothing to do with plant and will fight to ensure prospective purchasers do not mistakenly associate it with any type of cannabis company. M. Shanken Communications Inc., the publisher of Wine Spectator magazine, is on the later side of the cannabis spectrum, and sued Modern Wellness Inc. for using the mark WEED SPECTATOR for a website that provides information about cannabis and cannabis-based products.
Wine Spectator alleged in the lawsuit that Weed Spectator not only adopted a confusingly similar trademark, but that it also copied its 100-point rating system. In fact, Wine Spectator alleged that this was a “classic case of passing off.” In addition, Wine Spectator filed a letter of protest against Modern Wellness’ pending applications for WEED SPECTATOR in connection with “providing on-line digital publications in the nature of education in the field of cannabis via the Internet.”
A letter of protest is a way to object to a pending application before the application is published for opposition. The party submitting the letter of protest is not allowed to make any arguments about the registrability of the pending mark. You are only allowed to submit evidence the party believes supports a refusal to register the pending mark. If accepted, that evidence will be used as a basis to refuse registration of the applied for mark. Letters of protest are not always accepted though.
This case raises an interesting point for trademark searchers. We have talked a lot about the importance of the relatedness of goods factor and that prior case law is the best indicator for assessing whether certain goods or services are related. But what do you do when there is not a lot of case law to turn to? Cannabis is still a banned substance federally, but has recently been legalized in some states. There has not been an opportunity for a court to decide the issue of whether wine and weed are related goods.
In these situations, trademark searchers need to look to other context to see what other type of products have been found to be related. The context of the Weed Spectator website is to inform individuals about something they could use in a social setting much like alcoholic beverages are used in a social setting. Therefore, it would be reasonable to compare how the Trademark Office has treated alcoholic beverages and cigars, for example, to assess how the relatedness of goods factor will shake out. However, overtime, a body of case law will develop around cannabis and cannabis-based products.