In recent years, the popularity of microlearning as a training technique has escalated to the level where entire training companies devote themselves to offering microlearning content, it’s an always-popular topic for webinars and workshops for training professionals, and it even has its own Wikipedia entry. It seems to date at least from the mid-2000s work of Theo Hug, a professor of educational sciences at the University of Ins “Didactics of Microlearning.”
Grovo Learning (founded in 2010), which calls itself “the microlearning company” and claims to be the “pioneer” of the strategy, announced last week that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) awarded it a registered trademark on the term. According to the USPTO’s online search system, this is not the first time a company has been awarded a trademark for the word microlearning. In fact, BVS Performance Solutions, a bank training provider, holds a trademark for the term “dynamic microlearning,” which the trademark defines as “educational services, namely, providing on-line instruction in the form of non-downloadable short training videos on various subjects critical to job performance to adults in the field of financial institutions.” Franklin Covey Co. previously held a trademark on the word microlearning from 2006 to 2007.
What impact will this new trademark have on the learning and development community, which now uses microlearning – as a word and a delivery strategy – so frequently? Ron Coleman, a partner at Archer & Greiner, P.C. and popular trademark law blogger, says, “Sooner or later, someone who has the financial incentive to do so will challenge a supposed trademark based on a registration that was granted improvidently. Until that happens, however, a lot of competitors – likely smaller ones – are going to be intimidated into not using a term. This does not happen often, but unfortunately it can and does happen.”
On the other hand, Ryan Vacca, professor of law at the University of New Hampshire, doubts the trademark registration will have a meaningful impact on other training services providers and L&D departments. Grovo’s registration, he says, is on the Supplemental Register, meaning that until and unless Grovo demonstrates exclusive use of the term microlearning for five years, other organizations are free to use it without crediting Grovo. In short, the trademark only protects microlearning as it refers to Grovo’s specific microlearning services.
In fact, according to Lyle Gravatt, a patent attorney at NK Patent Law, “When Grovo filed the trademark application for microlearning, the USPTO responded by saying the mark was too ‘descriptive’ to be placed on the Principal Register – the mark described the goods and services being used in association with the mark, so the USPTO refused to grant Grovo exclusive ownership of the mark (similarly, the USPTO would deny registration of ‘red shoes’ to describe a company’s red shoes). Instead, Grovo was moved to the Supplemental Register, where they will remain for up to five years, after which they may again attempt to register the mark on the Principal Register.”
“At the end of the day,” Vacca says, “if L&D departments and other training companies keep using the word microlearning in a way that doesn’t have anything to do with Grovo’s services, but instead use it as a way to generally describe the similar services and products they provide, then this will weaken Grovo’s ability to protect microlearning as a mark and protect others from using it. Given the ubiquity of the term at the moment, I think Grovo will have an uphill battle to show that it has a protectable mark.” Gravatt adds that “aggressive enforcement by Grovo may even risk motivating competitors to petition for cancellation of their mark.”
Grovo is certainly a significant contributor to our understanding of microlearning, but it’s not the only one. Since microlearning has proven to be an effective training strategy, it is unlikely that the word will fall into disuse by other training providers. Our favorite word for the bite-sized chunks that many modern learners prefer is safe for now.