Marty Stouffer, National Geographic lock horns in court
Pitkin County resident Marty Stouffer, whose documentary series “Wild America” ran 14 years on PBS, is accusing National Geographic of using his ideas and compromising his brand through a series of trademark violations.
Stouffer and his Aspen-based company, Marty Stouffer Productions, filed a lawsuit Wednesday in the U.S. District Court of Colorado claiming National Geographic Partners and a host of its divisions lifted the “Wild America” brand for their own video productions.
The lawsuit says Stouffer registered the Wild America mark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 1982, the same year the animal-show series debuted on PBS, “and has been the exclusive owner of the Wild America mark ever since.”
Stouffer and National Geographic, whose majority owner is 21st Century Fox, did not respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday.
“Wildlife America” originally featured brothers Marty and Mark Stouffer trekking across North America’s wildlands in a quest to capture rare nature videos. It was one of PBS’ most popular series, according to the lawsuit. Marty Stouffer Productions invested more than $24.5 million to advertise, promote and brand the series, the suit says.
The Stouffer brothers even once produced wildlife documentaries for National Geographic, while Mark worked for the Washington, D.C.-based organization until 2002, the suit says.
As recently as 2012, National Geographic negotiated with Marty Stouffer Productions about the possible purchase or licensing of the “Wild America” film library, but the deals didn’t materialize, according to the lawsuit.
Also in 2010, a high-ranking executive with National Geographic unsuccessfully sought permission from Marty Stouffer to title a miniseries called “Wild Americas” or “Wildest Americas,” instead rolling out a series called “Untamed Americas” in 2012 in the U.S. The same series currently is sold and marketed outside of the U.S. under the title “Wild America” on DVD and Blu-Ray, the suit claims.
“Unaware that the National Geographic defendants were improperly using the Wild America mark in conjunction with the Untamed America miniseries, (Marty Stouffer Productions) continued to negotiate and discuss licensing or selling the ‘Wild America’ film library to the National Geographic defendants,” the suit claims.
By 2013, National Geographic debuted the television series “America the Wild,” which “bears a striking resemblance to ‘Wild America,’ replicating the most minute details of ‘Wild America’ in its production,” the suit says.
With host Casey Anderson, “America the Wild” has mimicked Marty Stouffer’s work on “Wild America,” such as Anderson’s interactions with grizzly bears that were similar to those of Stouffer’s, the suit claims.
“The similarities between ‘America the Wild’ and ‘Wild America’ are wide-ranging, including an uncanny similarity between each show’s host,” the suit claims.
The suit continues: “The National Geographic defendants specifically copy many iconic images from ‘Wild America,’ including, among others, the image of two big horn sheep head-butting one another.”
National Geographic’s documentary series “Surviving Wild America” and “Untamed Americas” also have built “on the goodwill and brand recognition of MSP’s ‘Wild America,’” the suit says, noting Stouffer’s production company made another 10 half-hour episodes and 12 one-hour documentaries that were sold as VHS and DVD home videos in the 1990s and 2000s.
“The Wild America mark is unquestionably a famous mark, as the series has been viewed billions of times and has made a lasting impression on the cultural consciousness,” the lawsuit says. “The ‘Wild America’ series has aired continually on television in the United States for an unprecedented 38 years and was recently licensed for an additional five years in syndication.”
Additionally, Stouffer and his brother Mark produced the motion picture “Wild America” — a story about their lives and brother Marshall’s — in 1997, the suit says in an effort to demonstrate that the series “has come to occupy a place of fame in contemporary culture.”
The lawsuit makes six claims for damages: federal trademark infringement, federal trademark dilution, federal unfair competition, unfair competition under Colorado common law, deceptive trade practices, and copyright infringement. The suit does not specify the amount it is seeking in monetary damages.
A setback to Marty Stouffer’s reputation came in 1996 after a Denver Post article alleged he sometimes staged wildlife encounters and used captive animals for his documentaries. Stouffer denied those allegations, although PBS did its own investigation showing that a “significant percentage” of the “Wild America” shows involved staged shots, according to a National Geographic article from August 2013.
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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has tested positive for the coronavirus. Polis and his partner, Marlon Reis, both have COVID-19 and are asymptomatic, the governor said in a statement Saturday night.