Business Monday: Marty Stouffer, National Geographic still at odds in ‘Wild America’ case

Marty Stouffer’s trademark lawsuit against National Geographic has passed muster with a federal judge who ruled last week that four of six claims by the Aspen-area resident and wildlife filmmaker can proceed.

U.S. District Judge William Martinez’s 45-page ruling, which came Aug. 20, dismissed Stouffer’s claims of unfair competition and copyright infringement against National Geographic. The order, however, cleared the way for Stouffer’s federal claims of trademark infringement and trademark dilution, as well as his claims of unfair competition under Colorado common law and violation of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act.

“The court believes that the appropriate question to ask is: Did the junior user (National Geographic) have a genuine artistic motive for using the senior user’s (Stouffer’s) mark?” asked U.S. District Judge William Martinez in his order.

With that question to be put to the test, Martinez wrote, “In light of these rulings, Stouffer will be given an opportunity to amend his complaint and National Geographic will be given another opportunity to move to dismiss.”

Stouffer, whose Marty Stouffer Productions is based in Aspen, is suing National Geographic on contentions that it ripped off his ideas and its divisions stole his “Wild America” brand for their own video productions.

The suit was filed in December; National Geographic filed a motion to dismiss the claims in February, saying its work is protected by the First Amendment.

Among Stouffer’s allegations is that National Geographic’s “America the Wild,” a television series that debuted in 2013, “bears a striking resemblance to ‘Wild America,’ replicating the most minute details of ‘Wild America’ in its production.”

Marty and his brother Mark starred in the original “Wild America,” which showed the tandem journeying across North America’s wildlands on a mission to capture rare nature videos. The lawsuit says it was one of PBS’ most popular series, running from 1982 to 1996, and Marty Stouffer Productions invested more than $24.5 million to advertise, promote and brand the series.

In court filings, National Geographic, which is owned by the Walt Disney Co., argued Stouffer had no right to generic traits “common among television shows of this type: a male star, interacting with animals, having facial hair, or of wearing a backpack and jacket while standing on snow.”

The judge ruled that Stouffer’s unfair competition and copyright and infringement claims don’t hold up because, in part, “Stouffer may believe these elements define the nature documentary genre because ‘Wild America’ made them standard. Even if true, they remain unprotectable ‘idea(s)’ or ‘procedure(s),’ … and Stouffer has not plausibly alleged that National Geographic’s selection and arrangement amounts to copyright infringement.”

Stouffer’s suit said he had been working with National Geographic earlier this decade about some type of licensing agreement or possible purchase of the “Wild America” film library, but the deals didn’t materialize.