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Backcountry.com backpedals after trademark litigation efforts lead to backlash

FILE - The central Wasatch Mountains on Monday, July 11, 2016. Questions and complaints were raised Thursday over a possible national recreation and conservation area for the central Wasatch mountains that includes land trades for ski resort and wildernes Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Following a massive backlash from customers, outdoor enthusiasts and industry stalwarts over a recent spate of legal actions targeting small businesses using the term “backcountry,” Utah-based Backcountry.com posted a mea culpa on its website after a week of stonewalling media.

The furor began to erupt last week following a Colorado Sun story that detailed the 23-year-old company’s decision to task California-based IPLA Legal Advisors, a firm nationally recognized for its expertise in trademark law, with aggressively pursuing a selection of companies that have used “backcountry” in their branding and/or logos. Those actions included filing four federal lawsuits and the distribution of a slew of cease-and-desist orders demanding companies abandon their use of “backcountry” or face legal action. The company also filed numerous actions with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

A Facebook page started on Nov. 1, Boycott BackcountryDOTcom, had almost 17,000 followers on Wednesday, with many commenters calling for boycotts. Some posters were also advocating for email campaigns demanding big outdoor gear firms like Patagonia, The North Face and others that sell their products on Backcountry.com discontinue their partnerships.

While Backcountry.com has a history of defending its trademark, going back to at least 2006, the company has ratcheted up those efforts following its own updated trademark filing in 2017 that included a long list of products. While mostly a reseller of high-end outdoor products, the company has been expanding its own selection of branded gear and clothing.

One of the recipients of the ILPA’s cease-and-desist communications was Jenny Verrochi, of Boulder, Colorado. Verrochi was targeted by the Backcountry.com lawyers for using the name Backcountry Nitro, a beverage business she started in January. The company is a one-person operation that specializes in cold brew coffees infused with superfood ingredients like goji berries and cacao nibs. Verrochi funded the launch of the company with a Kickstarter campaign and had also registered the Backcountry Nitro trademark.

Verrochi said she was shocked when she received an email from an ILPA lawyer and couldn’t decipher how a tiny Colorado business selling canned coffee drinks could be infringing on the rights of an outdoor gear company. She also called the tone of the correspondence bullying and intimidating.

“I had a correspondence with them to try to figure out why there was a problem,” Verrochi said. “They told me I could still sell my product but couldn’t advertise, have a website or do any marketing.”

Verrochi hired a lawyer to help with the situation, which she said cost her several thousand dollars, but ultimately decided she did not have the resources to engage in a legal battle with Backcountry.com. She shut down her website and was out of business while going through a rebrand. Her company, now known as Wild Barn Coffee, is back online and Verrochi bears no ill will toward the rank-and-file at the company that came after her, and is chalking the experience up as a lesson, albeit an expensive and unpleasant one.

“There are great people who work there but this is not their fault,” Verrochi said. “But, the damage to my business and the money other companies have lost ... there’s no way to make up for that.”

While Backcountry.com began life in 1996 as a small Park City retailer, launched by ski enthusiasts Jim Holland and John Bresee and first specializing in avalanche locator beacons, it quickly grew into one of the leading online retailers of outdoor specialty gear. It has changed hands a few times since, and in 2015 was acquired by San Francisco-based private equity firm TSG Consumer Partners, which owns about a dozen consumer brands including Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

Numerous Deseret News requests for comment via emails directed to both Backcountry.com and the company’s public relations firm went unanswered, but Backcountry.com’s current CEO, Jonathan Nielsen posted a letter on the company’s website Wednesday evening aiming to make amends for the company’s legal strategies focused on trademark issues.

“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,” 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.

“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.”

Yet the backlash continued to reverberate Thursday, when Nielsen’s family left their Summit County home and stayed somewhere else due to an online threat from an “internet bully,” according to a daily dispatch report from the county sheriff’s office. A deputy there received a call from a Backcountry.com attorney, the crime log states.

“The person threatened the CEO by stating, ‘I know where you live a nice little place in XXXX, and you will suffer dire consequences,’” the report continues. “The suspect appears to have a fake social media page and may live out of state.”

The majority of social media chatter about the lawsuits stopped at debating or decrying Backcountry.com’s business practices.

Jonathan Sackheim from Boulder, Colorado, who joined in Facebook conversations about boycotting the company, said he was on the fence about whether or not the company’s actions were misguided when he first heard news of the lawsuits, but later decided Backcountry.com had overstepped.

“I learned they were going after smaller companies that couldn’t defend themselves,” Sackeim told the Deseret News. “I understand the strategy of protecting your trademark ... but they went after companies that just weren’t real-world threats.”

Sackheim, who founded and operates a digital marketing agency in Boulder, believes Backcountry.com mistakenly followed the advice of their lawyers on trademark issues rather than a “values driven” solution.

He said he also found Nielsen’s apology statement lacking in accountability.

“I’m glad they apologized ... but its not entirely clear what they apologized for and he didn’t say what they were going to do about it,” Sackheim said. “Dropping one lawsuit doesn’t get to the part people are upset about.

“Backcountry’s CEO and private equity company are focused on one bottom line, but they’re missing the other bottom lines of people and social responsibility.”

In his statement, Nielsen recognizes the company “misjudged the impact” of its legal actions and anticipates the response from some, like Sackheim, who may not feel the company has yet to do enough to win them back as customers.

“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.”