The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has given Grovo a registered trademark on “microlearning.” In legal terms, a trademark is used to identify goods or services as having a single source, according to intellectual property attorney Patrick J. Arnold Jr.
But Arnold noted that Grovo has registered microlearning on the less stringent Supplemental Register as opposed to the Principal Register.
Companies that are approved for the Supplemental Register can use the “circle R” registration mark but do not have the greater legal protection afforded by the Principal Register. The trademark was originally granted in November 2016, according to a Grovo spokeswoman.
“The Supplemental Register is basically where you park your registration for a number of years and then you hope that a few years down the road your mark has built up what they call ‘secondary meaning,’” Arnold said.
Secondary meaning occurs when consumers eventually identify a trademarked name with a specific product. If Grovo were eventually to get the mark to the Principal Register it would give the company the ability to stop others from using a mark similar to microlearning.
“It doesn’t have to be the exact same but a court will look at how close the two marks are or who used it first,” Arnold said. That is not an issue yet because Grovo’s application to get on the Principal Register has been refused on the grounds that the term is “too descriptive,” meaning the term microlearning can be used too generally outside of Grovo’s specific product.
Grovo CEO Steven Carpenter said going after other companies that use the term is not Grovo’s intent. He said the main point of the trademark was to make microlearning a core part of every organization’s learning strategy. “I want to grow the category by leaps and bounds,” he said.
Carpenter joined Grovo about seven months ago, when the company had already started the process of obtaining the trademark. New to the industry when he came on board, he said he asked about 50 people for their definition of microlearning and quickly realized that after “short bursts of content” and “in the moment of need,” everything became either a jumble of words or generic and ill-defined.
As a result, Carpenter said he wanted Grovo to establish a clear definition of microlearning, which can be boiled down to four requirements:
- It must be tied to the overall company strategy.
- There must be a compelling learning experience.
- It must be adaptable across multimedia platforms.
- It must be available when workers need it and accessible within their workflow.
Bob Mosher, a senior partner and chief learning evangelist for APPLY Synergies, a consulting firm, said he was initially taken aback by Grovo’s effort to trademark the term. “I wasn’t ever aware of someone trying to trademark mobile learning or e-learning, for example,” he said. “These have always been disciplines in our industry, not products.”
Mosher hesitates to use new terms like microlearning because he said they tend to rebrand something that’s already prevalent in the industry, which causes confusion within the L&D world and, more important, among learners. “I’m more on the side of simplicity rather than throwing in another shiny penny,” he said.
From his point of view, Mosher doesn’t think microlearning has yet reached the point where it can be defined. “Is it performance support? Is it smaller e-learning? Is it chunked down? Is it job aids? Is it short video vignettes?” he said.
But Mosher said Grovo’s trademark opens up an interesting conversation about the difference between a discipline and a product. The industry needs to decide whether microlearning is a product, a modality or a methodology, he said, and he hopes Grovo’s definition will accelerate the discussion.
Grovo’s Carpenter agreed. “The most important thing right now is the category needs further definition and an honest discussion of what is effective and not,” he said.
Carpenter said he has a particular frustration with products that simply take a long video, chop it up and call it microlearning. “I just think there’s a lot of greed that’s happening with companies that are just trying to take advantage of a trend, but there’s not any real productization or efficacy with it,” he said. “I just think the category needs to be bigger.”
Carpenter said the original team that began Grovo’s trademark effort found there was an emerging science to microlearning. “They really pursued it in conjunction with the cognitive science behind what microlearning and the efficacy was,” he said. “So we just ran with it, and it turns out to be very consistent with how I see the market evolving as well.”
As for the trademark, Carpenter said they have plans to build on what they have already done. “We do want to be the biggest player in microlearning, so we’re definitely going to continue to build around the intellectual property and the marks associated with it,” he said.
But IP attorney Arnold isn’t confident they’ll be able to move on to the next stage of registration due to the descriptiveness of the term. “If I were a betting man, I doubt that they’ll get this,” he said. “And if they don’t, it’s free for everyone to use.”
This story first appeared in Workforce‘s sister publication Chief Learning Officer. Ave Rio is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.