California Intellectual Property Licensing: Our Comments to the Bureau of Cannabis Control
As we’ve been blogging about for the last couple of weeks, the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) recently released modifications to the proposed regulations for cannabis licensees, one of which effectively prohibits all licensing, white labeling and manufacturing agreements between two parties where one of those parties is not a licensed cannabis business. In our post on this modification, we urged stakeholders to submit written comments to the BCC expressing their opposition to the rule change. We also noted that we would be submitting formal comments as a firm on behalf of our clients and are publishing those comments here. Our hope is that the BCC understands the damaging implications this rule change will have on the industry here in California, and we will be following the rule adoption process closely to see how this shakes out.
Below is the full text of our November 2 letter to BCC, minus the letterhead and signatures. We will continue to dialogue with affected parties and regulators on this crucial issue as opportunities permit. Please continue to join us in making your voices heard!
Lori Ajax, Chief
Bureau of Cannabis Control
P.O. Box 419106
Rancho Cordova, CA 95741
Re: Comments Regarding Modifications to Text of Proposed Regulations for All Bureau Licensees §5032-Commercial Cannabis Activity
Dear Ms. Ajax,
On behalf of Harris Bricken McVay Sliwoski, LLP and our clients participating in California’s cannabis industry, we submit our comments to the Bureau of Cannabis Control’s Modifications to the Text of the Proposed Regulations for All Bureau Licensees.
Our comments are limited to Section 5032 pertaining to “commercial cannabis activity.” This section proposes to expand the definition of “commercial cannabis activity,” which may be conducted only between licensees, as follows:
- 5032. Commercial Cannabis Activity
(a) All commercial cannabis activity shall be conducted between licensees. Retail licensees, licensed retailers and licensed microbusinesses authorized to engage in retail sales may conduct commercial cannabis activity with customers in accordance with Chapter 3 of this division.
(b) Licensees shall not conduct commercial cannabis activities on behalf of, at the request of, or pursuant to a contract with any person that is not licensed under the Act. Such prohibited commercial cannabis activities include, but are not limited to, the following:
(1) Procuring or purchasing cannabis goods from a licensed cultivator or licensed manufacturer.
(2) Manufacturing cannabis goods according to the specifications of a non-licensee.
(3) Packaging and labeling cannabis goods under a non-licensee’s brand or according to the specifications of a non-licensee.
(4) Distributing cannabis goods for a non-licensee.
In particular, we take issue with the expansion of the definition of “commercial cannabis activity” to include “Manufacturing cannabis goods according to the specifications of a non-licensee” and “Packaging and labeling cannabis goods under a non-licensee’s brand or according to the specifications of a non-licensee,” as this modification will effectively prohibit all intellectual property licensing agreements between licensees and non-licensees. We have not encountered such a prohibition in any other state in which cannabis is legalized and regulated, and we believe that this modification would stifle the industry and eliminate many, if not most, of the brands currently on dispensary shelves in California.
Intellectual property licensing agreements are utilized widely throughout virtually every industry. We have assisted clients with many licensing deals throughout the state, none of which were intended to circumvent cannabis regulations or hide ownership or financial interests. In fact, our interpretation of the “financial interest holder” rule has been that the licensor in each of these licensing deals including a royalty component where the licensor receives a share of profits or revenue from the licensee must already be disclosed to the appropriate state regulatory agency as a “financial interest holder” in a licensee.
There are many reasons why intellectual property licensing agreements make sense for a licensed operator, and why access to intellectual property beyond that owned by licensed operators benefits consumers:
- Many licensed operators do not have the resources to develop new technologies, products, or brand identities and intellectual property licensing can provide a mechanism for expanding and improving their product offerings.
- Many companies and individuals that own intellectual property, such as recipes, techniques, processes, and brand identities do not have the resources to obtain local and state permits or are based in jurisdictions that do not allow commercial cannabis activity. Intellectual property licensing can provide a mechanism for these companies to provide their intellectual property to licensed operators and become fully disclosed financial interest holders in those licensed operators by taking a royalty based on product sales.
- For entities that own multiple operations, it often also makes legal sense to utilize an IP holding company (that is not a licensed entity) to hold and manage the group’s IP portfolio for the avoidance of IP ownership disputes and liabilities, among other reasons.
- Licensed intellectual property expands the ability of licensed operators to provide a greater variety of brands and products to consumers.
Eliminating the ability of licensees to enter into intellectual property licensing deals with non-licensees harms both licensees and consumers by restricting the number of brands and products available. It also seems that the Bureau’s goals may not be well-served by this proposed rule modification due to overbreadth of its scope. The intent of Sections 5032(b)(1) and (b)(2) appears to be preventing licensed entities from conducting cannabis business operations at the behest or at the direction of unlicensed entities. The main purpose of intellectual property licensing deals is not to direct an entity how to conduct its business, but to restrict the ways in which the intellectual property may be used, and to ensure compensation to the owner for those limited uses. The proposed modification to Section 5032 casts an unnecessarily wide net that would prohibit all manufacturing, packaging, and labeling operations by a licensed operator that happen to use intellectual property owned by a non-licensed entity—a result that does not serve consumers, licensed entities, or public safety. Just as a landlord should not have to be licensed in order to lease its property to a licensed cannabis operator in exchange for rent, an owner of a brand or a recipe should not have to be licensed in order to license its intellectual property to a licensed operator in exchange for compensation.
Rather than becoming the first state to prohibit IP licensing in its cannabis regulations, we recommend that the Bureau instead amend the following rule pertaining to financial interest holder disclosure requirements to explicitly include intellectual property and manufacturing agreements where the licensor receives a royalty as disclosable to the state (proposed language emphasized):
- 5004. Financial Interest in a Commercial Cannabis Business
(a) A financial interest means an agreement to receive a portion of the profits of a commercial cannabis business, an investment into a commercial cannabis business, a loan provided to a commercial cannabis business, or any other equity interest in a commercial cannabis business except as provided in subsection (c) (d) of this section. For the purpose of this section, an interest in a diversified mutual fund, blind trust, or similar instrument is not a financial interest. For purposes of this division, an agreement to receive a portion of the profits includes, but is not limited to, the following individuals:
(1) An employee who has entered into a profit share plan with the commercial cannabis business.
(2) A landlord who has entered into a lease agreement with the commercial cannabis business for a share of the profits.
(3) A consultant who is providing services to the commercial cannabis business for a share of the profits.
(4) A person acting as an agent, such as an accountant or attorney, for the commercial cannabis business for a share of the profits.
(5) A broker who is engaging in activities for the commercial cannabis business for a share of the profits.
(6) A salesperson who earns a commission.
(7) A non-licensed entity that has entered into an intellectual property licensing agreement or manufacturing agreement with a commercial cannabis business for a share of the profits.
From an ownership and financial interest holder perspective, intellectual property and manufacturing agreements are no different than any of the arrangements already referenced in Section 5004 where a non-licensee receives a share of profits from a licensed entity. Intellectual property and manufacturing agreements that stipulate that all commercial cannabis activity shall be carried out solely by a licensed operator and that the non-licensee shall have no control over the licensed entity should not be treated any differently than leases, consulting agreements or any other agreement in which a non-licensee receives a royalty.
If the Bureau is instead concerned with the contents of these intellectual property licensing and manufacturing agreements, we recommend requiring disclosure of the agreements to the state, rather than prohibiting them altogether or requiring the licensor to secure onerous local approval and eventual state licensing for a commercial cannabis license they never intend to actually use. Washington State, for example, which has some of the strictest regulations pertaining to ownership and financial interests in cannabis businesses in the country, requires that licensors entitled to a royalty in a licensing agreement be disclosed to and vetted by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB), and that the licensing agreement itself be disclosed to and reviewed by the WSLCB.
We appreciate the opportunity to provide these comments to the Bureau’s proposed modifications to the text of the proposed regulations for all Bureau licensees and would be happy to engage in a dialogue to identify a means for regulating these types of business deals without causing significant harm to the industry and to consumers. If you have any questions, please contact Alison Malsbury at firstname.lastname@example.org or Hilary Bricken at email@example.com.
Let’s hope that the Bureau considers these and other comments thoughtfully and seriously as California continues to build out its cannabis program architecture. We will keep you posted.