Backcountry Ski Maps owes the backcountry community a huge debt of thanks for standing up for small businesses in the outdoor space, protecting the rights of the public to the word “backcountry”, and generally fighting for a more ethical outdoor industry.
A Week of Terror
One week ago, the Colorado Sun published an article outing the dozens of lawsuits that ecommerce giant Backcountry.com had filed against small businesses using the word “backcountry” in a company or product name.
At first, it seemed as though a little guy like Backcountry Ski Maps would be in no danger – after all, we don’t compete with Backcountry.com in any way, and it would be difficult to argue that any confusion could be caused between our brand and theirs. And what interest would they have in suing a company that makes less in a year than they do in an hour? But a quick look indicated that that would not be the case. There were three pages of lawsuits filed by Backcountry.com. Businesses need to protect their trademarks, but the pattern here was clearly one of aggression rather than protection.
Backcountry Babes, an organization providing female-focused avalanche education was sued and settled. So was Backcountry Discover Routes, a non-profit providing maps for motorcyclists. It seemed the larger organizations (BCA, Backcountry Magazine) were being left alone, and the little guys (Marquette Backcountry, Backcountry Denim) were being chased after.
It quickly became clear that we were actually a prime target.
After two years of hard work building up a brand and a small but loyal following, it seemed possible (perhaps even inevitable) that a cease and desist letter would arrive at the doorstep.
For a small company like ours, that would likely be a death knell. We simply wouldn’t be able to eat the cost of lawsuit. And rebranding and reprinting our entire inventory of maps just before the winter season would likely be unsurvivable as well.
For a brief period, it seemed a distinct possibility that Backcountry Ski Maps would have to fold – and that our livelihoods would disappear with it. Each morning, I would wake up fearing that today might be the day that the letter from Backcountry.com’s lawyers arrived.
A Ray of Hope
We tried to go about business as usual, but there was a definite drop in productivity. We were constantly scanning for new news, while fearfully awaiting the mailman each day.
Then a light appeared at the end of the tunnel. And that light was you.
Within days, a Boycott BackcountryDOTcom Facebook group had reached thousands of members. It now sits at over 15,000 and continues to grow quickly. #boycottbackcountry was all over Instagram and Twitter. Several people changed their profile picture to Backcountry.com’s goat with a red line through it.
We followed along, sharing these groups with friends, emailing and calling Backcountry.com and their parent company (TSG) and spending our dollars elsewhere.
The backcountry (no TM) community had made it clear – the word “backcountry” belongs to nobody, and unethical businesses will be voted against with dollars.
It seemed a David vs. Goliath battle, but with public pressure mounting, Backcountry.com’s CEO, Jonathan Nielsen, issued a public “apology”.
It took baby steps in the right direction – Backcountry.com admitted to a mistake, and withdrew their suit against Marquette Backcountry.
But it seemed like the kid caught with their hand in the cookie jar – more sorry that they were caught than sorry for their actions.
Nielsen wrote “It’s important to note that we tried to resolve these trademark situations amicably and respectfully, and we only took legal action as a last resort. That said, we know we mishandled this, and we are withdrawing the Marquette Backcountry action.”
But an excerpt from an email from Backcountry.com’s lawyers made that difficult to believe:
This is not going away. If your next communication is anything other than a complete acceptance of settlement terms, we will understand you have no intent to comply with our client’s requests and we will proceed accordingly. Please be aware that my client will not be inclined to resolve this matter amicably if it is forced to oppose your application or formally litigate the matter.
There was no indication that Nielsen or Backcountry.com would not continue to harass any other company using the term “backcountry”. More troubling than that was that there was no indication that they understood that the backcountry belongs to the public.
What Comes Next?
The fight is not over yet.
No mention has been made of the small businesses who went out of business or nearly went out of business due to Backcountry.com’s litigation. Will they be reimbursed for their legal fees and rebranding efforts?
Will other lawsuits and cease and desists be dropped? Will over-aggressive policing of the word “backcountry” stop in the future?
We’ll sleep more comfortably knowing that the true backbone of the backcountry community
For us, this is not enough. We will continue to boycott Backcountry.com and TSGs other companies (even you, PBR) until Backcountry.com has righted their wrongs – from reactions to Nielsen’s letter, it appears that the backcountry community agrees.