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Get ‘em while they’re pot: eight of the most overused cannabis puns and why we need to rise above

In an industry that has grown-up rapidly in the past few years and established its credibility, the pot puns have held strong. Why?

A few years back, it was rare to even see the word “cannabis” used in stories penned by reporters. But as industry changes and matures, vocabulary is changing too.

The one thing media outlets can’t seem to shake? Pot puns. In fact, it appears they could be getting worse.

They are absolutely everywhere: in the majority of all news stories, on billboards, even in company names themselves: from Maricann Inc. to Good Buds Company Inc to Green Relief Inc (all of whom are licensed producers of cannabis for medical purposes in Canada).

From an NBC news headline, such as “Weed the people? Companies relax drug-testing policies in bid to attract more workers — Drug testing policies have gone to pot as more employers choose not to navigate the hazy issue” to a Toronto Star headline, proclaiming: “Marijuana marketing expected to be more low-key than blunt,” the puns are running rampant.

Some say that it is necessary to lose the pot puns if we want to not only de-stigmatize cannabis use but also give companies credibility in the rapidly shifting industry. Some feel they reinforce a negative stereotype. Some believe when used by the media, they turn hard-news stories into puff pieces.

Others argue they’re all in good fun, in an industry that built its foundation on having alternative views.

While the latest release of the AP Stylebook, a journalist’s bible, don’t reference cannabis puns specifically, it surprisingly gives the nod to cannabis slang, stating: “Slang terms such as weed, reefer, ganja or 420 are acceptable in limited, colloquial cases or in quotations.”

Here are Proactive’s top eight list of the most overused pot puns (admittedly, many have been used by us: we are not immune to the draw of the pot pun but are trying to correct our ways).

Eight pot puns to drop

1. High times: a classic, and almost boring by this point.

2. Pot of gold: a nod to the leprechaun, along with some lucky charms.

3. Up in smoke: not terrible, but incredibly overused to describe any negative situation.

4. Budding industry: yes, we know the industry is growing. Yes, we know buds are involved.

5. Highs and lows: the gold standard of cannabis puns. An oh-so-obvious one to pull out on a moment’s notice, when your brain is foggy and it’s five minutes before the end of your shift.

6. Ready to roll: begrudgingly, this can be used in certain situations somewhat successfully, such as in this previous release by the Alberta government, stating “Alberta will be ready to roll come October 17.”

7. Blazes new trail: yeah, yeah, we know your “joint” taskforce is blazing a new trail.

8. Let’s be blunt: just slightly cringeworthy. Also, there is a difference between a joint and a blunt (blunts are rolled with tobacco paper).

In conclusion, is there any way to stem the budding growth of cannabis puns?

For now, weed better wait and see.

(Note: clearly, we still have a ways to go when it comes to extinguishing the cannabis puns).

Get ‘em while they’re pot: eight of the most overused cannabis puns and why we need to rise above In an industry that has grown-up rapidly in the past few years and established its credibility,

Not all pun and games: Federal Court not amused with cannabis company’s brand parody

Newsletters

28 September 2020

A recent Federal Court decision illustrates the danger of adopting a mark or name inspired by a famous or well-known brand, even when confusion is unlikely. The decision is a cautionary tale, particularly for those in burgeoning industries, such as Canada’s cannabis industry, which may wish to piggyback on an established brand’s goodwill and reputation.

Facts

Toys “R” Us (Canada) Ltd, the well-known toy retailer, brought an application in the Federal Court against Herbs “R” Us Wellness Society, a Canadian company operating a cannabis boutique and dispensary in Vancouver, British Columbia. The respondent had adopted and was using the trademark HERBS R US and prominently displayed, outside its storefront, the following design mark.

Figure 1

In its application, Toys “R” Us alleged that Herbs “R” Us had:

  • infringed its trademark rights;
  • directed public attention to its goods, services and business in such a way as to cause or be likely to cause confusion in Canada (also known as ‘passing off’); and
  • depreciated the value of the goodwill attached to the TOYS R US registered trademark and design (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Decision

The court granted the application in part.

The court dismissed the applicant’s claims for trademark infringement and passing off, finding that it was:

unlikely in the extreme that a Canadian consumer, even a casual one somewhat in a hurry with an imperfect recollection of the TOYS R US mark, would see the HERBS R US trademark and conclude that a well-known toy retailer had started branching out into storefront ‘dispensary’ services or cannabis sales. (1)

However, the court found that Toys “R” Us had established that the use of the HERBS “R” US design mark was likely to depreciate the goodwill attached to the TOYS R US registered trademark and design, contrary to Section 22 of the Trademarks Act (RSC 1985, c T-13).

The court permanently enjoined Herbs “R” Us from “adopting, using, or promoting the trademark or trade name HERBS R US as or as part of any trademark, trade name, logo, domain name or social media account name” (2) and ordered it to:

  • deliver up or destroy under oath any goods, packages, labels and advertising material in its possession, power or control that bore the HERBS “R” US trademark, trade name or logo; and
  • pay Toys “R” Us damages and costs totalling C$30,000.

Lessons learned

Section 22 of the Trademarks Act prohibits depreciation of goodwill, a cause of action similar to trademark dilution under the US Lanham Act. Section 22 of the Trademarks Act reads as follows:

Depreciation of goodwill

22 (1) No person shall use a trademark registered by another person in a manner that is likely to have the effect of depreciating the value of the goodwill attaching thereto.

The provision is broad in scope and may serve to enjoin a defendant’s unlawful activities where traditional trademark infringement cannot be established. For example, Canada’s courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, have found as follows in respect of Section 22:

  • A defendant need not use the identical trademark registered by another person. Rather, a claimant need only show that the defendant has made use of a mark “sufficiently similar to… evoke in a relevant universe of consumers a mental association of the two marks”. (3)
  • A defendant need not use the mark in connection with goods or services that are the same as or similar to the claimant’s own or in connection with goods or services that are competitive with those of the claimant. (4)
  • A defendant need not use the mark as a ‘trademark’ (ie, an indicator of source). (5)
  • The claimant’s mark need not be famous or even well known. Rather, the claimant need only show that its mark is “sufficiently well known to have significant goodwill attached to it”. (6)
  • A claimant need not demonstrate confusion in order to establish ‘depreciation’, which may refer to reputational damage, dilution, disparagement or tarnishment of the claimant’s mark or the whittling away of its brand equity as the result of ‘blurring’. (7)

For these reasons, Section 22 is a useful and versatile tool that may assist brand owners in defending their brand equity where a clear-cut case of trademark infringement or passing off is difficult to establish.

The court’s decision in Toys “R” Us also serves as a cautionary tale for small start-ups in any industry that wish to trade on the goodwill and reputation of an established brand with a playful mark or name. As the court’s decision clearly demonstrates, this is never a good idea.

Cannabis companies have been particularly prone to adopting ‘punny’ marks or names inspired by those of famous or well-known brands. One dispensary, based in Oklahoma, adopted the short-lived name Dank of Oklahoma before BOKF, NA, which owns the registered trademark BANK OF OKLAHOMA, sued the infringers in the US District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma. Earlier in 2020, Mondelez Canada Inc, which owns the registered trademark SOUR PATCH KIDS, secured a court order from the US District Court for the Central District of California compelling Facebook and Google to disclose information associated with the Instagram and Gmail accounts of a company selling THC-infused gummies in blatantly infringing packaging that bore an undeniable resemblance to the brand owner’s own distinctive packaging (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Mondelez Canada Inc subsequently amended its complaint (filed in California in July 2019) to name the defendants responsible for marketing and selling the gummies and, in April 2020, the court issued its final order and judgment on consent, permanently enjoining the defendants from further infringing Mondelez’s IP rights.

Further, unlike the Copyright Act, which recognises as ‘fair dealing’ (analogous to the US concept of ‘fair use’) the use of another’s works for the purposes of parody or satire, (8) the Trademarks Act does not share its sense of humour; parody or satire is not a viable defence to trademark infringement, passing off or depreciation of goodwill.

Brand owners in Canada’s cannabis industry should also be mindful of the additional restrictions imposed by the Cannabis Act and the Cannabis Regulations, which prohibit a person from:

  • promoting cannabis, cannabis accessories or any service relating to cannabis in a manner which there are reasonable grounds to believe could be appealing to ‘young persons’ (ie, those under 18 years of age); (9) and
  • selling cannabis or a cannabis accessory in a package or with a label if there are reasonable grounds to believe that the package or label could be appealing to young persons. (10)

In its application, Toys “R” Us sought punitive damages partly on the basis that the respondent’s use of a brand associated with children “amount[ed] to targeting an illegal dispensary business at children, which is particularly reprehensible”. (11) While the court did not go so far as to award the damages sought, as it did not “view the use of the HERBS R US mark as targeting a cannabis dispensary to children in a reprehensible manner”, the decision nevertheless underscores the inherent dangers of adopting, for one’s own commercial gain, a mark or name that alludes to another’s brand. (12) In finding that Herbs “R” Us had depreciated the goodwill in the TOYS “R” US brand, the court ruled that:

the creation of an association between the Toys ‘R’ Us and a cannabis ‘dispensary,’ particularly one that appears to be operating without a licence, and one that markets through social media with adult-themed content said to include nudity and swear words, is ‘utterly inconsistent’ with the reputation of the TOYS R US brand, and that this association is likely to tarnish the goodwill [associated with its registered trademark]. (13)

Comment

This decision provides useful lessons for both established brands that enjoy significant goodwill and small start-ups in search of a brand name. For major brand owners, the breadth and flexibility of Section 22 makes it a powerful weapon to wield against others who may depreciate, dilute, tarnish or whittle away their brand equity. For new companies, particularly those in the cannabis industry, the adoption of a punny name may lead to litigation and a subsequent rebranding, which can cost significant amounts of money and doom a company to failure before it even starts. In either case, expert trademark counsel should be sought before steps are taken to defend an established brand, or launch a new one, in Canada.

For further information on this topic please contact Graham Hood at Smart & Biggar by telephone (+1 416 593 5514) or email ([email protected]). The Smart & Biggar website can be accessed at www.smart-biggar.ca.

Endnotes

(1) Toys “R” Us (Canada) Ltd v Herbs “R” Us Wellness Society, 2020 FC 682 at para 44.

(2) Toys “R” Us judgment.

(3) Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin v Boutiques Cliquot Ltée, 2006 SCC 23 at para 38.

(4) Ibid at para 46.

(5) H-D USA, LLC v Berrada, 2014 FC 207 at para 67.

(6) Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin at para 46.

(7) Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin at paras 63-64.

(8) Copyright Act RSC 1985, c C-42, s 29.

(9) Cannabis Act, SC 2018, c 16, s 17(1)(b).

(10) Cannabis Act, SC 2018, c 16, s 26(a) and 27(a).

(11) Toys “R” Us at para 69.

(12) Toys “R” Us at para 70.

(13) Toys “R” Us at para 61.

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Not all pun and games: Federal Court not amused with cannabis company’s brand parody Newsletters 28 September 2020 A recent Federal Court decision illustrates the danger of adopting a