Why Thousands of People Are Mad at Backcountry

Update, 5:45 p.m.: In a public statement shortly after this story published, Backcountry announced it is withdrawing the lawsuit against Marquette Backcountry Ski. “Backcountry has never been interested in owning the word ‘backcountry’ or completely preventing anyone else from using it,” CEO Jonathan Nielsen said in the statement. “But we clearly misjudged the impact of our actions.”

No one likes a bully, and in this age of cancel culture, the behavior can have dramatic consequences. When a news report dropped last week that online gear purveyor Backcountry.com was suing dozens of smaller brands for trademark infringement of the word “backcountry,” the online reaction was swift. Since its formation Friday, the Facebook group Boycott BackcountryDOTcom has mushroomed to more than 12,000 members, all of them angry and discussing ways to spread the boycott.

According to articles by Agnarchy.com and the Colorado Sun, early this year, Backcountry.com began serving several brands with lawsuits based on their 2007 trademark. Two years before that, Backcountry.com had started petitioning the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to cancel those companies’ trademarks. Businesses included Backcountry Denim, Backcountry Nitro coffee, and even the company Constellation Outdoor Education, which trademarked the name Backcountry Babes for clinics offering women-focused avalanche education courses. Observers, including former Backcountry.com employees who wished to remain anonymous, believe that the lawsuits are tied to the company’s 2018 launch of their own branded products.

In the last year, all three of the above targeted companies changed their names or came to some agreement with Backcountry.com’s lawyers. At least one company, Marquette Backcountry Ski, has chosen to fight, and activists have created an online legal defense fund. According to the lawsuit, Backcountry.com’s lawyers want three times the profits Marquette has accumulated since his company’s launch in 2010, as well as legal fees and a penalty. “Defendants’ actions were undertaken intentionally to obtain an unfair advantage over Backcountry and in conscious disregard of Backcountry’s rights, and were malicious, oppressive, and/or fraudulent,” the lawsuit reads. Marquette Backcountry Ski owner David Ollila told the Sun that he’s obligated to fight, since he’s the head of a Flint, Michigan, nonprofit called 100K Ideas that unites students with entrepreneurs to develop business ideas.  “How can I back down from this bullying,” he says, “while at the same time I am telling everyone they need courage to pursue financial freedom and living on your own terms?”

The hashtags #boycottbackcountry and #backcountryboycott have proliferated on Twitter, as has #scrapethegoat, a reference to people removing the company’s well-known goat logo sticker that comes packaged into nearly every purchase from the online retailer. Backcountry.com’s recent Facebook and Instagram posts, too, have been inundated by disapproving messages.

According to organizers of the Backcountry.com protests, vendors who sell products through Backcountry.com have also been raising questions, though none of those we contacted to confirm have yet responded to Outside. Through a spokesperson, Backcountry.com declined to comment on the issue.

Outdoor activists are angry at the seeming injustice of a company owned by private-equity TSG Consumer Partners using a large  trademark law firm, California’s IPLA Legal Advisors, to enter litigation with small companies who likely can’t afford the thousands of dollars it takes to defend themselves. “Trademarking backcountry is like trademarking camping or mountains. It belongs to the community and shall not be appropriated,” reads the Facebook group’s About page.

Over the weekend, dozens of people messaged or called into Backcountry.com’s sales channels and protested the company’s behavior. Sales reps there responded that they’d been instructed not to comment on the situation. Several activists, including former employees, reminded Facebook users that the sales reps were not part of the decision making on legal issues, and shouldn’t be held responsible. Moderators removed posts that identified employees at the company, including screenshots of testy exchanges.

Jon Miller, one of the moderators for the Boycott BackcountryDOTcom Facebook page, says the group’s goals are to get the company to cease the lawsuits, or barring that, hit them hard during the upcoming Christmas shopping season. All publicity isn’t good publicity, he says, where online shopping is concerned. There are too many competitors just a click away. The group has now also registered the website boycottbackcountry.com.

Miller acknowledges that while aggressive trademark protectionism may be standard procedure in today’s corporate culture, it’s a very bad look for a company that serves a community recently primed for political action and social justice. “We are all about climate and equity activism lately, so it’s a volatile mix,” says Miller, who works as a brand and marketing consultant. “They really misjudged the community.”

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