US online retailer Backcountry.com has bowed to pressure and threats of a customer boycott over its heavy-handed treatment of smaller businesses using the name backcountry.
Late on Wednesday 6 November, Backcountry CEO Jonathan Nielsen broke the company’s silence and apologised for its actions.
In an open letter to its customers, posted on its website, Nielsen acknowledged that the firm had got it wrong. ‘We made a mistake. We truly apologise.’
Backcountry has now withdrawn its legal action against Marquette Backcountry Skis. It is also reviewing the way it deals with trademark issues that have stirred up a huge groundswell of resentment.
In his statement, Nielsen says:
‘Backcountry has never been interested in owning the word “backcountry” or completely preventing anyone else from using it. But we clearly misjudged the impact of our actions.’
Acknowledging that it might take time to win back trust, he added: ‘We intend to learn from this and become a better company.’
News originally broke last week in The Colorado Sun that online retailer Backcountry - originally founded 23 years ago by ski enthusiasts – had begun suing smaller businesses for using the term ‘backcountry’, which the brand trademarked in 2018.
Backcountry.com served several brands with either lawsuits or cease-and-desist orders, including Weston Backcountry, Marquette Backcountry Skis, and even Backcountry Babes — a women-focused avalanche safety course.
Backcountry.com a year ago filed for trademarks protecting the word ‘backcountry’ for all sorts of outdoor gear as the online retailer launched its first-ever branded jackets, skis and apparel.
‘My feeling is that nobody should have the right to the term “backcountry”,’ said Jordan Phillips, who launched his American-made jeans company Backcountry Denim in 2017 and was sued this year in California federal court by Backcountry.com. ‘It’s like trying to trademark “road” or “beach” or “mountain”.’
Backcountry.com - owned since 2015 by private equity firm TSG Partners - this year hired California’s IPLA Legal Advisors, the US’s largest trademark-only law firm, in four lawsuits targeting small businesses that used the word backcountry in their name. The US District Court lawsuits follow several years of the e-retailer filing dozens of lawsuits and protests with the US Patent and Trade Office, targeting businesses that have trademarked the word backcountry.
IPLA last year filed for trademarks on behalf of Backcountry.com for hundreds of pieces of gear, including tailgate pads for bikes in pick-up beds, climbing ropes, crash pads for rock climbing, avalanche probes, ski goggles, ski helmets, bike tools, water bottles, bedding, camp chairs, duffel bags, dog leashes, climbing skins, chalk bags and women’s clothing.
Since The Colorado Sun broke the news last week, the US outdoor community including Backcountry customers have taken to social media to denounce the move. The hashtags #boycottbackcountry and #backcountryboycott have been trending with images of people ripping off Backcountry’s trademark goat sticker, which arrives with virtually every purchase.
A Facebook group called Boycott Backcountry.com had urged supporters to ‘unlike’ Backcountry’s own Facebook page.
In an open letter to Backcountry, the campaign’s organiser Jonathan Sackheim said: ‘You guys are really screwing the pooch on this one with the backcountry.com trademark threats. I realise this is basically a spreadsheet row to you, and you want it to be worth more not less, but these are people's livelihoods you're threatening to make a number higher in your spreadsheet.
‘I'm no pitchfork wielding simpleton and I know why you'd go after smaller brands that can't defend themselves very easily, it's to make the case that you're protecting the mark so your asset is worth more and that no other a-hole company could possibly do to you what you're doing. But really, there's more than one option here, you're not forced to threaten these people to keep your mark, and if you think you are, then you shouldn't have pushed for it in the first place. If somebody is legitimately threatening your business, then give ‘em hell, but this is far from the case. You guys are the real threats here.’
Calling on the brand to back off he said his group grew from 5,000 people to 8,411 in 23 hours. ‘These are your base spenders, not people who buy one pair of mittens a year, they're spending thousands, they're leaving comments, and they're leaving you. This is cancel culture and your brand is about to be cancelled.’
David Ollila, founder of Snapperhead Inventions, the manufacturer of Marquette Backcountry Skis, has said that Backcountry first challenged his company several months ago at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The situation has escalated, and Ollila is fighting for the right to retain his trademark.
‘I was served in federal court about two months ago,’ he said. ‘It appears the effort is being driven by their private-equity firm and its legal team.’
A GoFundMe page was also set up to support David Ollila, the only business owner who has not settled after being sued in federal court.
According to The Colorado Sun, many independent brands have opted to settle under undisclosed terms. Backcountry Babes, for example, will retain its name after reaching an agreement with Backcountry.
Others, however, have not had the same luck. Backcountry eBikes had to rebrand to Bakcou eBikes after it was sued in February. And Backcountry Denim Co. also had to rebrand after a settlement hearing this year. It is now BDCo.
For more on this story, see The Colorado Sun