Licensing High Technology; Cannabis and Corporations

In a recent and excellent blog post, Jeff Madrak, a colleague of mine, addressed the current growth of “Big Marijuana.” The trick is lots of water and sunlight, but mostly it is careful adherence to the law. Cannabis’s legal status is a figurative hydra; ask a question about protecting children and you find yourself having to answer what harms current prohibition has and the long term effects of that regime; ask about taxing cannabis, and then you’re raising questions about specific tax types and similar industry approaches; and so on. Similarly, for every clever business strategy and solution, for every big picture analysis raised by that post, I found myself wondering about the policies served – if such solutions are “good” in more than a business sense, if society should punish or reward these “ganjapreneurs.”

Tackling that hydra is a task that is literally Herculean. This is cold comfort for business people, because business thrives best when the legal framework is well developed: such a framework reduces uncertainty, which reduces risk, and lower risk means greater long term return on investment. I want to address what I found to be a surprising result and a happy coincidence of law: namely the interaction of licensing intellectual property and the legal fiction of the corporate form.

An industry built on cannabis cannot operate on an interstate market without violating federal law and policy. Note the Cole Memo priority of “[p]reventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states” is facially violated even if marijuana is legal in those other states. Interstate commerce is the prerogative of the federal government, so Big Marijuana is restricted to operating on a state by state basis. However, the intangible nature of intellectual property and the economic convenience of the corporate form can provide an avenue between states that is already being explored by some.

The corporate form. It already sounds like a flimsy pretense, a phrase someone might casually drop as a parenthetical at a cocktail party and be met by a collective eye rolling of all within earshot. These days, the idea of the corporate identity is not only much more prevalent in the social dialogue but it is also more akin to an incantation. It is some sort of legal witchcraft, seeming to afford businesses protections traditionally reserved for actual people. I certainly have a degree of initial discomfort with corporate personhood.

Which isn’t to say there are not benefits to allocating personhood to a corporation. Probably the best justification for identifying a corporation as a legal individual is the allocation of liability. For one thing, investors are protected from personal liability, which promotes risk taking and innovation. Additionally, anyone harmed by the activities of a corporation can name this identity as a defendant in a court of law. In fact, a “person” can sue another “person” so long as they have standing. Standing is basically when one person has an injury that another person caused and the courts can give a remedy to, like Apple v. Samsung.

Legal personhood could also be applied to resolving unusual problems, such as an endangered animal being granted personhood via statute, allowing others to sue “someone” on behalf of that animal if that “someone” poses a threat to them or their habitat. While it has been indicated as possible for congress to grant such standing (an extraordinary step, indeed), courts have rejected standing for cetaceans, and declined to address the standing of sea turtles and birds. Not to digress too far into the realm of the Lorax, what is pertinent here is that our legal system defines “person” in a precise and artificial way to enforce certain rights and responsibilities.

Corporate persons generally have residency where they are incorporated. This is another convenience because courts are able to discern what laws apply to that corporation, and corporations are able to determine which state gets their taxes. Cannabis’ current legal hodgepodge makes this particular simplification incredibly useful. A business can very specifically choose a single state and act within those borders in both a literal and transparently legal sense. This distinction not only allows businesses to choose their laws, it also allows businesses to limit the federal illegality of their endeavors.

The California Artisan Cannabis initiative provides that “[a] person who is not a California resident, or not incorporated in California, shall not be qualified for a [cannabis] license.” (emphasis added). So the legal form, in this specific case, allows the legal cannabis market to thrive while limiting the breaking of federal laws, and promotes state self-governance. Finally, it keeps all of the profits and commerce contained within state limits, thus minimizing the effect of state legalization on neighboring states.

This raises the issue of licensing agreements between corporations in different states. Do such agreements subvert the policies and priorities of the individual states and the federal government, or do they, like the corporate form, actually work to preserve what few clear lines exist in the current legal schema? It is most likely that licensing agreements do neither of those things, but they do allow businesses to continue to flourish and to set up strategically for any potential federal-level changes in the legality of cannabis.

Intellectual property comes in various flavors, but is generally understood to refer to the protection of a particular expression of an idea. Intellectual property law is also often under the jurisdiction of the federal government, which, given the apparent contradictions between federal and state law, can lead to some interesting legal dilemmas. Licensing, however, affords private parties simple and interesting solutions to these problems.

Intellectual property is intangible. When you license someone to use it, you transfer legal rights, not an actual object. Normally a sale between a business in one state and a business in another state would be interstate commerce. Does a license to use a particular expression of an idea qualify as a transfer between state lines? Generally, no.

Without getting too silly, intangible properties, like debt, have no real location and so they are not physically transferred from one place to another. This legal technicality is important because the federal government only has jurisdiction over interstate commerce. In U.S. v. Lopez a federal statute barring guns from public schools was deemed unconstitutional and later had to be rewritten to include only those guns that have “moved in or that otherwise affect[] interstate or foreign commerce.”

Often, licensing will have territorial restrictions. With the current legal classification of cannabis, this is not only desirable and probably legally necessary for business, it also serves the voters’ preferences in determining the legality of cannabis for their state. Common intellectual property licensing practices come with various pros and cons.

What is interesting to this discussion is the availability of arbitration and non-assertion clauses, and the antitrust considerations raised by the latter. Arbitration agreements are a way to provide legally binding resolutions to any disputes that arise. They are wonderful because they avoid the public costs of a court, the individual costs of an attorney, and because they are not part of the court system they can be much more efficient, quick, and accessible to the poor. Of course, the flipside is that there are no fairness guarantees, appealing a decision is difficult, one party often has much more bargaining power and influence in the choice of arbiter (you’re probably bound to one with your credit card, your cell phone, your car, and so on), among other concerns. The primary focus of these concerns relates to labor agreements, or the protection of unsuspecting consumers.

I assume these business licenses are conducted by corporations that are legally savvy and cooperative, so many of those concerns are not present. Which is to say, arbitration agreements would largely function to save taxpayer money by keeping inter-business disputes out of the courts. An additional benefit of keeping disputes out of the courts is that courts would not have to weigh in on the divisive political debate over the legality of cannabis, arguably outside the purview of the court since strategy on how to enforce federal law is up to the executive branch.

Similarly a non-assertion agreement is a contract to not sue over certain property right infringements (often as part of a settlement in an infringement claim). This serves much of the previously mentioned arbitration benefits by keeping such controversies out of court but raises different concerns. Patents, specifically, grant a temporary monopoly on an invention and the dangers of monopolies have long been recognized. A non-assertion agreement can lead to a small group of businesses acting as an oligarchy by contract. Further, such an agreement potentially protects invalid patents from being challenged by competitors – certainly not a win for society since we prefer the full use of ideas in the public domain.

In conclusion, it appears that the legal technicalities of how corporations exist as entities and the intangible nature of intellectual property actually serves to avoid many of the legal problems surrounding cannabis.   While my initial impression was that corporations could use legal maneuvers to essentially be an interstate cannabis operation, the actuality is that these legal hoops need to be jumped through and actually function as further restrictions on interstate commerce for Big Cannabis.

Additionally it would be wrong to condemn a business for working within the existing legal framework. Furthermore, if they were trying to abuse that framework, courts are equipped to see through manipulations of the corporate form. Through these legal fictions, society is served by confining cannabis commerce to those states that wish to allow it without violating federal law and also potentially without placing unreasonable burdens on the judicial system.

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