7Pipe created a product they call a ‘twisty glass blunt.’ Using the age-old technology of an Archimedes screw, herb is moved along the length of a glass tube to create a fresh hit. It’s a simple but powerful innovation. A video of 7Pipe’s twisty blunt quickly went viral, and has been viewed more than 26 million times. For designer and company founder Jeffrey Han, the success of the product was hard-won through a long design process, but his product’s simplicity quickly became its biggest weakness. “It’s so simple, it’s a tube and a screw,” Han explains. “That makes it easy to copy.”
Copied at the source
Stopping Chinese manufacturers from reproducing 7Pipe’s design and selling copies on websites like Alibaba is effectively impossible. The city where 7Pipe manufacture their product in China also hosts hundreds of other factories doing very similar work. When a product is a hit and global demand rises, these other factories quickly step in to fill the demand gap.
How patents work
In the United States, a patent gives its holder a limited monopoly to prevent others from making, using or selling the invention. We created patents because innovation is in the greater good. We incentivize companies to push products and processes to the next level by allowing patent holders to profit from their innovation. For successful designers like Han, filing patents is part of their process: “I’ve been patenting my designs for years, but nothing had ever gone viral before. Thankfully, when I designed the twisty, I was in the habit of patenting my designs.”
Despite having filed and received a design patent, counterfeits of 7Pipe products soon began to appear. Han laments that patents themselves provide little protection, noting that “when you get a patent, it doesn’t prevent anyone from replicating and selling your design, because you need to enforce the patent.”
Cease and Desist
Neil Juneja is managing partner at Gleam Law, a practice specializing in intellectual property. He explains that patents are only as powerful as their enforcement effort: “You go after everyone inside the United States, meaning you hit the wholesaler and every shop that carries it and sue them. Make it so that nobody will go near copies of your product. Now, when the counterfeit products hit the border, nobody will touch it.”
While patents are difficult and expensive to enforce, the threat of a lawsuit alone is enough to make offending businesses think twice. As Juneja puts it, “Nobody wants to become involved in a patent lawsuit.” Legal action can also be used to create business opportunities for the patent holder, even in a market flooded with copies. “You do a one-two punch, you send a cease and desist to a company saying you need to stop selling this counterfeit product or we’re going to sue you, but if you want to sell the real, legal product—we can do business.”
Juneja also offers another solution to the problem; by applying to the International Trade Commision (ITC), it is possible to attain a ‘limited exclusion’ order. Companies can then use this order to direct US Customs and Border Protection to stop shipments of infringing products as they are being imported, literally leaving the products on the dock. Though this process is effective, it can cost “up to a million dollars,” according to Juneja, and involves using private detectives in China to trace shipments to factories.
As with many aspects of the growing cannabis industry, there is a lot at stake as the industry takes shape. “Right now, many of the patents we’re seeing are basically a land grab, says Juneja. “As our industry becomes larger, it will become more profitable to enforce these patents.”
Confronting the issue
For 7Pipe, the battle to control the market for their patented design requires constant vigilance, and they are often confronted face-to-face with companies breaking patent law. “At an industry trade show in Las Vegas,” Han recalls, “we visited the Chong’s Choice stand, and on their counter was a pile of Chong’s Choice branded twisties for sale. We confronted them and they responded, as many companies do, ‘We didn’t know it was patented. Everyone else is doing it.’ Along with three other companies, we sued them all on the second day of the trade show.” When asked why Han thinks companies are willing to break patent law, he responded, “Maybe they don’t know it’s patented, but maybe the lure of quick profits makes that decision [for them].”
Business is hard; it’s not enough to simply have a good idea. You must take that idea and push it through challenges. The job is not over once you’ve gotten the product to market, and it’s a shame, but working to protect your product from competitors can be just another cost of doing business. At the end of the day, the easiest way to avoid being copied is to be original. “We need to innovate to show people that we’re still alive and the leader in our niche,” says Han. “But we’re also hiring a full-time general council.”
The government holds an early patent on the medical use of cannabis
Perhaps the best-known cannabis patent is patent no. 6,630,507. This patent was filed by the National Institute of Health on behalf of the United States government in 1999. The patent sought to establish the use of cannabinoids as neuroprotective antioxidants. The patent was a lightning rod for medical cannabis advocates who wondered why the government would own a patent on using cannabinoids as a medical treatment, yet continue to discredit cannabis.
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