One of The American Legion’s signal achievements, the GI Bill, is now a brand name, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
VA’s registration of “GI Bill” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office was suggested by President Obama at his signing of an Executive Order last April for the purpose of “Establishing Principles of Excellence for Educational Institutions Serving Service Members, Veterans, Spouses and Other Family Members.” The order was in reaction to allegations of questionable marketing practices by a handful of schools attempting to recruit GI Bill beneficiaries into their student population.
The order read, in part, “Since the Post-9/11 GI Bill became law there have been reports of aggressive and deceptive targeting of service members, veterans and their families by some educational institutions. For example, some institutions have... encouraged service members and veterans to take out costly institutional loans rather than encouraging them to apply for Federal student loans first; engaged in misleading recruiting practices on military installations; and failed to disclose meaningful information that allows potential students to determine whether the institution has a good record of graduating service members, veterans, and their families...”
In its closing paragraphs Obama’s Executive Order directs that “...all appropriate steps (be taken) to ensure that websites and programs are not deceptively and fraudulently marketing educational services and benefits to program beneficiaries, including initiating a process to protect the term ‘GI Bill’ and other military or veterans-related terms as trademarks, as appropriate.”
The issue of GI Bill brand name protection became legal news during the summer when the attorneys general of several states won a lawsuit against QuinStreet Inc., a company that owned and maintained GIBill.com. According to the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, the company engaged in deceptive practices by directing website visitors exclusively to for-profit schools that were clients of QuinStreet. As a result of the lawsuit, QuinStreet forfeited commercial use of GIBill.com, with VA winning exclusive rights to the domain name.
The call to trademark “GI Bill” raised some eyebrows in the business community. Immediately after President Obama signed his executive order, Kristen Hinman, associate editor for BloombergBusinessweek, wrote a web article titled “Obama Wants to Trademark the GI Bill. Good Luck With That.”
“Trademark a law? Can you do that?” she wrote. “It’d be an unprecedented step, say intellectual property (IP) attorneys in Washington. And one that smacks of better PR than policy.
“Trademarks are for goods and services,” she continued. “They indicate a place of origin.” Hinman then quoted IP attorney Edward T. Colbert. “‘The GI Bill isn’t selling anything,’” said Colbert. “‘That’s the first problem. Second problem: Trademarks are for the exclusive commercial use of their owners. The GI Bill - which dates to World War II - has been used by everybody for a long time.”
However, Colbert offered an alternative to trademarking the GI Bill name. “Congress could pass a law giving the VA the sole right to use ‘GI Bill” for commercial purposes. The U.S. Olympic Committee, the American Red Cross, and the Boy Scouts of America all enjoy that privilege, thanks to a federal statute designating them ‘patriotic and national organizations’ and the same statute could apply to the GI Bill. It’s rarely used... (but) clearly our veterans - people who fought and died for our country - clearly they would fit within that category.”
Nevertheless, VA followed through with its original plans, announcing its ownership of the GI Bill brand name on Oct. 16.
The original 1944 GI Bill, which provided millions of World War II veterans with higher education, was conceived and ushered through Congress by The American Legion.