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Can the government trademark “GI Bill?”

On Friday, President Obama issued an executive order that will limit or regulate how for-profit schools will be able to market to and recruit military members.

In the order President Obama stated he would like to trademark the term “GI Bill.” The original TradeMark application can be found here. GI Bill Trademark application You can also view it online here. 

There are a few issues with this strategy that schools and lead vendors should be aware of:

  • The Government can own a trademark, unlike a copyright.
  • The GI Bill is technically a law, not a good or service, which Trademarks are usually reserved for.  However, you can trademark words, but the cases are usually weaker.
  • There are many chapters within the original GI Bill – like the Post 9/11 GI Bill Chapter 33. To really make any policing effective, they would have to trademark specific chapters of the original law. Once again, this doesn’t really seem to fit traditional trademark law.
  • The GI Bill has been around since 1944.  I would argue that the majority of people know this is something from the US Govt not a private entity. I think the potential confusion arises when you have sites with official military terms like “military” and end in a .com instead of .gov. Any true military member knows that an official government site should end in .org or .gov.
  • There is also the case of nominative use. If there is no other way to reasonably refer to the trademarked term, anyone can still use the term.  How far will the government go to protect this term? EG will they penalize people for saying that their schools accept “GI Benefits?”
  • In the other DOE crackdown on for-profit edu schools were promising things that weren’t necessarily true. This time around – I personally don’t think the schools are promising anything about the GI Bill. All they are saying is that they accept the benefits and stating how much you may potentially receive.  If a school or website said you were guaranteed the maximum benefit then they might have false advertising claim. They may be misleading a person about how the GI Bill works but it is virtually impossible to say that your school offers the GI Bill itself. Everyone knows that the GI Bill benefit must come from the VA.
  • Once again the DOE nor the WhiteHouse has defined how this law will be enforced or when it may be enforced. The most common way of dealing with Trademark infringement is a simple Cease and Desist letter, not a financial penalty.
  • Trademarks once filed are open for debate. It is possible this process could take a long time if there are many comments from other businesses or the public. To file an opposition you can go here. Please note you can only file an opposition once the application has gone to the official Gazette for public opposition.
  • Many not-for-profit schools use the term GI Bill on their website. The removal of this term or policing of this term may have a negative impact on military members knowing where they can use their benefits.
  • The end consumer here – the military member may have less information on how the GI Bill works. Personally I think the VA website is a mess of red tape and acronyms. Why not let other sites explain it?

In a recent Business Week article they mentioned the govt is worried about schools marketing “bad programs” in conjunction with the GI Bill. The core statement of programs being “bad” is rather subjective. The quality of any school is really determined by the student.  At most of the for-profit schools you will find a mix of students who like the program and some who don’t. This sentiment will be somewhat similar in any school in America.

From a school perspective I think it makes sense to fully understand how Trademark law works before pulling back on marketing to military members. Some recommendations for the short term would be the following:

  • Note on your site – clearly and prominently – that you are not an official government website.
  • Do not promise GI Bill benefits. Edit your language to be less definitive.
  • Focus on your core product – education. Most Trademarks are enforced if they feel that a group of consumers is being misled. If you are honest and open about your offering and how it relates to the GI Bill, I would argue that you are playing within the terms of the law.

 

 

Obama Slams the For-Profit sector over misleading Military members

Friday, April 27, 2012

President Obama will sign an executive order today that will greatly limit the For-Profit EDU sector from marketing towards military members.

The order is a result of Senator Tom Harkin’s efforts to curb the for-profit sector from getting too much money from the federal government in the form of federal student loans.

What are the main changes in this Executive Order?

  • The VA is going to be trademarking the term “GI Bill” – this will greatly limit what you can say on military specific landing pages and potentially opens up some lead generators to trademark infringement.
  • All schools must provide each prospective student information from the Consumer Financial Protection Board about the “know before your owe financial aid form.” This essentially helps students fully understand the financial implications of what they are getting into.
  • Removing recruiters from military installations.
  • Regulating online recruiting websites from potentially misleading veterans and current military members.  It is not 100% clear who will be regulating the sites though. I suspect a branch of the Department of Education will be tasked with this responsibility.  The sheer number of sites related to this topic is quite massive though.
  • Collecting data from each school about how much revenue they get from GI Bill benefits.
  • Creating a centralized complaint system for military members. If you have tried the CFPB complaint system, it is very effective and efficient.

How does this impact EDU as a sector?

  • From a sector perspective several schools are military dependent since it offsets the current 90/10 regulations. I suspect this may lead to more strategies to find students who are able to pay a larger portion of the tuition themselves.
  • Some of the for-profit stocks are already being hit today with COCO down 3%. I suspect APOL will also take a short term dip on this news.
  • The reality is that no publicly traded school has been penalized publicly for an infringement on the incentive comp rules so far. Until this happens, a lot of this news is more about suppressing the industry versus destroying it.  I also think that a lot of this news is being timed specifically around the upcoming election.

As a media buyer what do I need to know?

  • As a media buyer you may want to call your vendors who are advertising with military sites or keywords. The trademark around the GI Bill is not in effect yet, but you will need to get an inventory around what you are potentially exposed to.
  • The schools and or agencies will need to come up with an universal set of regulations around how to market to the military. This should augment the education marketing council guidelines.
  • I strongly urge you to check out the “Know before you Owe” form on the CFPB site. This gives you a much stronger idea of what the govt is requiring.

 

 

My Data Button Initiative for Education

The Obama administration announced a plan to help students access their own data from various schools via a simple button. The so called “MyDataButton” initiative is building on the success from the Green button for energy conservation and Blue Button for veterans to access their own data.

The plan has several objectives:

  • Standardize education data
  • Allow students to easily and quickly access records from multiple institutions.
  • Allow for the tech community to build new applications and strategies with public data
  • It will allow students to download their financial aid data so it can be imported to other programs

The initiative could lead to new funding opportunities for local communities, it could also give us a much better picture of how students perform by race, income level, location, household income etc. This data could also be used to preemptively spot lower performing students and provide them with more tutoring.

This series of initiatives could run into potential FERPA regulations but the government is treading lightly in regards to privacy issues. To find out more about the MyDataButton please visit the Chronicle.com or the Whitehouse’s official statement on the Data Button.