Seven years ago, Tyson Stellrecht debuted his store, Backcountry Pursuit, in Boise, selling secondhand outdoor equipment and clothing.
The store grew, and he opened a second store in the nearby town of Eagle. Then, two years ago, lawyers for Backcountry.com started calling, complaining that the store’s name infringed on the Utah e-commerce company’s rights to the word “backcountry.”
So began Stellrecht’s trademark ordeal, which ended with a rebranding that consumed tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of his time changing the business name to Boise Gear Collective.
As part of a legal campaign Backcountry.com executives now regret, they sued Stellrecht, alleing his store’s name would result in the “likelihood of confusion” with the Park City-based online retailer, never mind that he sold used gear in stores and Backcountry sold new gear online.
"There was no mention of what we really did," Stellrecht said Monday. "The only issue was the word backcountry."
Stellrecht was among dozens of small business operators hit with trademark enforcement actions by Backcountry.com, which sells hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of gear for skiing, climbing and other outdoor pursuits. Most of the suits were filed in the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, a division of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, while others were filed in federal courts in Utah and California. Backcountry hammered one Denver brand for trademarking the phrase, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of backcountry” in connection with a line of apparel it sold.
Many of the targeted companies caved without contesting while others, like Stellrecht, entered negotiated settlements. Some told The Salt Lake Tribune they were bound by confidentiality agreements to not discuss their cases, while Stellrecht said his settlement merely barred him from saying anything “disparaging" about Backcountry.
Last week, a few days after The Colorado Sun reported Backcountry.com’s legal stratagem, CEO Jonathan Nielsen issued a formal apology for the aggressive way his company defended its trademarks. He dumped Backcountry’s legal counsel, the company said, and dropped a suit against a Michigan ski maker called Marquette Backcountry Ski.
“We clearly messed up here and wish we had handled this situation differently. We now realize our actions were not consistent with our values. Our leadership is rethinking how we engage with the community, to ensure our behavior is more respectful and better reflects our culture," Nielsen said in a statement sent Monday through an outside publicist. "We don’t expect everyone to forgive us immediately, but we are hopeful that people will take our word at face value that we are committed to putting in the time and effort necessary to turn things around.”
By “community,” he meant the outdoor enthusiasts who both make and use the stuff Backcountry sells and who were offended with what appeared to be the retailer’s takeover of the term “backcountry” with the help of a phalanx of lawyers. It was hard to square such legal maneuvers with the online retailer Utah skiers Jim Holland and John Bresee pioneered 20 years ago out of a Heber City garage, where they shipped avalanche-safety and backcountry ski equipment.
For many critics, Nielsen’s apology needs to go further than a commitment to do better.
“The reason this blew up is because it hit the outdoor community, which has an activist culture,” said Denver resident Jon Miller, who has his own brand dubbed Backcountry United. “It’s like the term Holy Bible getting trademarked. It’s my spiritual connection to something greater than myself. You have riled up a religious following to this idea.”
Miller, who has not been sued, joined fellow Coloradan Aaron Mattson moderating a Facebook group called Boycott BackcountryDOTcom that swelled to 21,000 members, many of whom have posted that they are still shunning the company’s products.
Miller hopes Backcountry.com can redeem itself, but he believes that it would take a “radical” gesture returning the term “backcountry” to the public domain. For his part, Stellrecht expects a personal apology from Nielsen and financial renumeration for his lost time and heartburn over the forced rebrand.
Backcountry declined to make Nielsen available for an interview Tuesday.
The CEO and his team “are reaching out to impacted parties individually, which will take a little bit of time and is the primary focus right now,” publicist Jess Smith wrote in an email.
To make things right with Marquette, Backcountry is now partnering with the Michigan ski company founded by David Ollila.
"Together, we will grow the Marquette brand and business on the Backcountry platform," Nielsen said in the prepared statement, "we will support two of [Ollila's] foundations that foster entrepreneurship and David will assume an advisory role to build stronger community relations."
Backcountry dropped its suit against Ollila, which Smith said was Backcountry’s only remaining active trademark suit. However, a list of cases Backcountry filed before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board includes at least two that appear to remain unresolved. One is a “petition for cancellation” filed in April against Backcountry Discovery Routes (BDR), a Seattle-based nonprofit that promotes off-highway motorcycle riding.
Backcountry.com sued the organization in connection with its retail side, according to BDR director of operations Inna Thorn.
"No suits have been withdrawn so far," Thorn said. "The CEO [Nielsen] will be meeting with us personally in the next few weeks."
BDR has been fighting back in court.
“The term ‘Backcountry’ is widely used by retailers and consumers to describe products and services to be used in remote, sparsely inhabited, rural areas,” BDR wrote in a counterclaim. The federal trademark office required BDR to disclaim exclusive rights to the term backcountry because it is a “nondistinctive, unregistrable matter apart from its overall trademark.”
After he settled with Backcountry, Stellrecht was stunned with the amount of effort that went into rebranding his store.
“First of all, we had to come up with a new name,” Stellrecht said. “I liked ‘backcountry.’ It really said what we did. We had to redesign the entire website. It’s not enough to just change the words to Boise Gear Collective.”
There was setting up new email addresses, restructuring the payroll, migrating 5,000 old emails into the new account, working with Facebook to preserve his page, which had built up a significant following. His web traffic fell to nothing, and he chucked $1,000 worth of stickers with the old logo.
In the process, he shuttered his Eagle store, concentrating his 23 employees in the downtown Boise location, which he expanded after a neighboring business vacated. He now sells new merchandise as well, but he still rankles over his brush with Backcountry’s attorneys a year later.
“I am willing to have a conversation with Nielsen and talk about what happened,” Stellrecht said. “If we can come to some kind of agreement, I am happy to spread the word that they have made it right with me. I am the best PR they have right now.”
Nearly a week after Nielsen apologized publicly, Stellrecht was still waiting for a call Tuesday evening.