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Can the government trademark “GI Bill?”

prednisone purchase canada 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.