Backcountry.com is not just dropping the remaining lawsuit targeting small business owner David Ollila for using the word “backcountry” in his ski company’s name.
The Utah e-tailing giant — under fire after a week of news outlining aggressive legal actions against dozens of business owners who trademarked the word “backcountry” in their name — is partnering with Ollila to help grow his Marquette Backcountry Ski brand. It’s donating money to two Michigan non-profits Ollila helped create that support innovators moving their products to market. It’s hiring Ollila as a consultant to help the company shape the week’s firestorm — which included more than 19,000 people pledging on a Facebook page to boycott Backcountry.com — into a way to help grow small businesses in the outdoor industry.
And Backcountry.com has fired the attorneys with IPLA, the country’s largest trademark-only law firm, who have spent the past two years targeting dozens of small businesses and nonprofits across the country with challenges to their registered trademarks and even federal lawsuits.
The moves reflect the company’s long-range plan to repair its business as a growing chorus of outdoor enthusiasts urge a boycott of the online retailer. But while suspending all legal actions, the company is not immediately dropping the 50-plus petitions filed in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office seeking to cancel dozens of trademarks registered by small businesses using the word “backcountry.”
Backcountry.com CEO Jonathan Nielsen, in an interview with The Colorado Sun on Friday afternoon, said he hopes to reach deals with each of those entrepreneurs. He has benched all his in-house attorneys as he begins his outreach.
“I think we definitely did not do it the right way and we have caused harm in the community, clearly, and we need to go make that right,” Nielsen said. “We are going to do a lot of listening and do a lot of apologizing and figuring out how we move forward. We are absolutely taking a completely fresh look at how we do things, and we are changing it in a big way.”
Reiterating an apology he posted on his company’s website on Wednesday, Nielsen said his company “is going to be better going forward.”
He said he hopes the deal with Ollila becomes a model for agreements he wants to reach with owners of businesses like Boulder’s Backcountry Nitro coffee company and Backcountry Denim Co., both of which rebranded after threats and lawsuits from Backcountry.com’s IPLA attorneys.
He will be reaching out to businesses like Carbondale’s Cripple Creek Backcountry, Minturn’s Weston Backcountry, the nonprofit Backcountry Babes avalanche education, Washington-based Backcountry Discovery Routes and North Carolina T-shirt maker American Backcountry, all of which were threatened by the company’s trademark lawyers in the past year, either through petitions for cancellation of trademarks filed with the USPTO, cease-and-desist letters or federal lawsuits.
“What we found when we sat down with David is that we can sit down and talk about this and work something out that works for everyone, and I’m hopeful that we can do that with all the parties that we have spoken to,” Nielsen said.
Ollila, who was one of four business owners targeted by Backcountry.com in federal lawsuits this year but the only one who had not reached a settlement, said the week’s blistering criticism of the company and the deal he reached indicate “that a small independent person with a strong conviction and a little bit of talent can level the playing field.”
“I think this might sound a little cliché, but I think there’s a way for Backcountry to move forward and to grow and to heal,” Ollila said. “There is a way for my company to prosper, which is why I started it in the first place. And then the market benefits when people choose to work together versus against each other. I think this is good for the outdoor industry.”
The organizers of the 19,000-member “Boycott BackcountryDOTcom” Facebook page on Friday released a petition urging Backcountry.com to cease all legal action, make amends to companies they have injured and end attempts to trademark the word “backcountry.”
“As we see it, you can own ‘Backcountry.com’, but ‘backcountry’ as a term should belong to our collective community and industry, not you and your business,” reads the petition.
Nielsen, while saying “everything is on hold,” stopped short of promising to terminate the petitions for cancellation the company’s IPLA attorney John Kim filed with the USPTO. Nielsen said he would be reaching out to every business targeted in those petitions to discuss how they can work together.
Want to know more about how we reported out this story? Read a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” with reporter Jason Blevins.
“There has got to be a way for us to kind of move forward in a way that makes sense,” Nielsen said. “That’s both in terms of how we do it and what we do. I’m committing to go back and talk to all those individuals and figure out what that looks like. I think that’s how things should be done in outdoor.”
He said Backcountry.com would be making “meaningful donations” to 100k Ideas, the Flint, Michigan, nonprofit Ollila co-founded that helps entrepreneurs find funding for their ideas, and to Invent at Northern Michigan University, which deploys students and professionals to support entrepreneurs.
Ollila, a venture capitalist who last week said he was “morally, ethically and professionally” obligated to fight the Backcountry.com lawsuit, will join the company as a consultant to help the company support more innovation and brands in the outdoor space.
“If I can be a connector between industry enthusiasts or would-be inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs through a process to build distribution relationships with Backcountry, that is a great way for them to foster industry innovation,” he said. “The most frustrating thing for someone trying to bring a product to market is getting into the existing distribution pipeline and when they can’t, I think that actually stymies innovation. When you set that kind of table, I think we will see exponential growth in innovation and the types of products that are coming into the market.”
Nielsen said he has already begun reaching out to business owners.
“I don’t pretend that this is going to change overnight,” he said. “Hopefully we can use this as a force for broader good for the community on a number of fronts. How do we grow the community? How do we interact? How do we use social media for a force of good without all the ugly things?”