Backcountry.com, a booming Utah-based online retailer of outdoor equipment, came under fire this week for what appears to be a scorched-earth legal campaign against small gear makers that use the term “backcountry” in their names.
The resulting backlash, much of it coming from the e-commerce giant’s own patrons, spurred the company to issue a public apology Wednesday and a promise to withdraw at least one of its lawsuits.
“We have heard your feedback and concerns, and understand we fumbled in how we pursued trademark claims recently. We made a mistake,” CEO Jonathan Nielsen said in “a letter to our community” posted to the brand’s website. “In an attempt to protect the brand we have been building for nearly 25 years, we took certain actions that we now recognize were not consistent with our values, and we truly apologize.”
The Colorado Sun broke the story, highlighting suits against a few companies, including the Utah firm formerly known as Backcountry eBikes, accusing the company of illegally highjacking the Backcountry trademark and seeking punitive damages from its proprietors.
Backcountry eBikes’ “conduct is extreme, outrageous, despicable, harmful, and/or in reckless disregard of Backcountry’s rights,” alleged the suit filed against that company’s principals, Dave Andre and Bryan Child, by the Salt Lake City law firm Durham Jones & Pinegar.
Some of the sued companies agreed to change their names in confidential settlements. Backcountry eBikes, which makes electric bikes rigged for hunting, is now known as Bakcou. Andre said Friday the terms of the settlement barred him from speaking about the case.
Known for its goat trademark, the Park City-based Backcountry has become a leading distributor of apparel and products used for camping, hiking, skiing, climbing and kayaking. It was launched by a couple of guys who loved backcountry skiing out of a Heber City garage more than 20 years ago, selling equipment for ski touring. Jim Holland and the late John Bresee sold out several years ago and Backcountry is now owned by the private equity firm TSG Consumer Partners, based in San Francisco. Holland continues to own a stake.
Thanks to the word’s branding power, with its connotations of adventure and pristine, remote landscapes, the “backcountry” term is commonly used by makers and retailers of gear for outdoor recreation and by mountain guides.
In Utah alone, the state Department of Commerce database contains 105 business listings using that term, from Backcountry Addicts to Backcountry Yogis. Many of these listings are duplicative or expired, or don’t engage in services that overlap with Backcountry.com’s. But plenty do, such as Backcountry Institute, launched by Alan Richards of Layton in 2016 to provide avalanche safety courses, and Backcountry Guiding and Outfitters based in Park City.
According to court records, Backcountry.com began filing trademark suits against firms using the name last year, including two in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City. One targeted a guiding firm called Backcountry Babes, based in Truckee, Calif., that leads women on skiing, cycling and climbing trips in the West. In the settlement, the company got to keep using the name.
Backcountry Babes Chief Executive Emily Hargraves said this week that the matter was confidential, and she could not discuss it.
The other Utah suit went after Dave Andre and his small bike-building firm, launched in 2016.
In 2017 and again in 2018, Backcountry.com sent Andre letters requesting that he stop using “infringing marks” in association with his bike company. Andre responded by denying there would be much confusion between the two companies’ marks, and he continued using the term backcountry, according to the suit.
Backcountry sued in July, alleging Andre’s commercial use of the term backcountry “will continue to cause irreparable harm to Backcountry’s rights in the Backcountry Marks and Backcountry Registrations and to its business reputation and goodwill.”
In response to The Colorado Sun story about the suits, a Facebook group formed, called Boycott BackcountryDOTcom, to rally outdoor enthusiasts to stand up to “corporate bullies" whose tactics threaten to put small outdoor companies out of business.
“Trademarking ‘backcountry’ is like trademarking ‘camping’ or ‘mountains,’” the group’s founder, Aaron Mattson, wrote in a post. “No one should own or enforce the trademark to it. It belongs to the community and shall not be appropriated. They are abusing the standards of the outdoor community.”
Less than a week after forming, the group now has nearly 17,000 members and its page contained hundreds of stinging posts directed at Backcountry.com’s legal campaign.
Mattson noted the company’s apology in a post but wrote that “it was obvious that it was not enough for this community, and that the vast majority will continue to boycott.”
Nielsen’s apology directly addressed criticism raised by the group, but he denied that his company was intent on “owning” the word backcountry or preventing others from using it. He said Backcountry tried to resolve its trademark disputes “amicably and respectfully, and we only took legal action as a last resort.” He then conceded the company mishandled the issue and promised to drop a pending suit against a firm called Marquette Backcountry.
“We will also reexamine our broader approach to trademarks to ensure we are treating others in a way that is consistent with the culture and values envisioned by our founders and embraced by our community,” Nielsen wrote. “We understand that this step we’ve taken may not be enough for some of you. The hope is that we can ultimately win back your trust, even if it takes time. We are grateful to be a part of your lives, providing you with great gear for your outdoor adventures, and all we want is to go back to doing what we do best. We intend to learn from this and become a better company.”