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Posted by on Nov 15, 2011 in Business, Economy, International, Law | 6 comments

Gibson Guitar – Government Harassment Or Effective PR

The Lacey Act has been around since 1900 when it was signed into law by President William McKinley. It has been amended and expanded since including once under Ronald Reagan and, most recently, under George W. Bush in 2008. Simply put, the Act prohibits trading in wildlife, fish or plants that have been illegally taken, transported or sold. Penalties include confiscation and criminal prosecution. Among the prohibitions included in the recent amendments is trading in wood that has been illegally logged.

Guitar makers have long relied on exotic woods to manufacture their products. Gibson is no exception. Two years ago, federal agents raided Gibson and confiscated guitars and pallets of ebony purchased from Madagascar. Earlier this year, Gibson was raided again, this time resulting in the confiscation of Indian rosewood. No criminal charges have been filed against Gibson. The case is still being investigated. Meanwhile, Gibson has filed suit for the return of the confiscated property. It has also hired a PR firm.

Musicians have come to fear the Lacey Act as well. The Act is retroactive, making the ownership or transportation of vintage instruments dangerous unless a person can prove that every piece of wood, and other components like ivory, was taken, transported and sold legally at the time the instrument was produced. Some musicians refuse to travel out of or into the country with vintage instruments. One pianist had the ivory keys of a vintage piano removed before moving overseas. A dealer in vintage stringed instruments has shut down its foreign sales.

Both the Department of Justice and the Fish and Wildlife Service insist that

“[P]eople who unknowingly possess a musical instrument or other object that contains wood that was illegally taken, transported or sold in violation of the law and who, in the exercise of due care, would not have known it was illegal, do not have criminal exposure.”

Notice that the statement addresses criminal prosecution, but does not address confiscation.

Over the decades, the Lacey Act has been regarded as useful in controlling international lawlessness, but there is also a history of alleged abuse where the Lacey Act is concerned. Most recently, a lobster importer was convicted and sent to prison in 2001 for trading in illegally transported Honduran lobster tails. The source of the illegality was that the lobster tails were shipped in plastic bags contrary to a little-enforced Honduran law requiring them to be shipped in boxes.

Back to Madagascar. There’s little in the way of law or law enforcement there since a coup several years back. Logging interests pay small sums to free lance loggers to poach valuable exotic woods from Madagascar’s national forests. Because woods like ebony don’t float, the loggers will often cut as many as five trees for every exotic tree to float the wood to a destination point. Madagascar’s forests are being denuded due to the illegal wood trade. Some exotic woods are legally harvested, but it is virtually impossible to distinguish between legally and illegally harvested woods.

Gibson claims that it obtained the wood legally and that the Feds are raiding their plants and seizing wood to intimidate them. Their claim would seem to have little merit prior to this year’s seizure of the Indian rosewood and 100,000 fingerboards. What Gibson does not emphasize is that there was a fact finding mission to Madagascar in 2008 as a result of which other guitar makers like Taylor and Martin stopped buying wood from the country. There’s also that pesky email from a Gibson employee suggesting that the company could continue buying Madagascar wood through the “gray market.”

For more on this story, here are some sources: WSJ ; science 20 ; WaPo .

As the owner of a 1960’s vintage C. F. Martin guitar, complete with now-banned Brazilian rosewood and maybe, I’m not sure, an ivory bridge, I’ll take the self serving position that the latest amendments to the Lacey Act are a) open to abuse and b) unconstitutionally retroactive in their application.

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Copyright 2011 The Moderate Voice
  • adelinesdad

    Firstly, I’m not in favor of a law that requires the US to enforce the laws of other countries. If we want to impose regulations on the importing of wood, that’s fine, but to impose such a blanket rule that all importers must become experts in foreign law (and how those laws are interpreted by the foreign country) is asking too much. To then ask that of every hand through which the good passes is way too much.

    Furthermore, it seems to me that there should be some limit to how much the government can confiscate or how long it can keep it without producing some sort of hard evidence that the law is being broken, beyond just a vague email from some employee. Is the government doing some sort of test on the wood? If so, when will the results be complete and how will it be conclusive? If not, why is it being confiscated if charges are not pending? I think Gibson deserves the answers to those questions, at least.

    However, if the Madagascar wood trade was so blatantly corrupt, I would expect a reputable company like Gibson to be more cautious. Still, foolishness is not illegal. It should not be Gibson’s responsibility to prove that the wood was legally harvested.

    Full disclosure: I am a guitarist but don’t own any vintage or exotic guitars, as far as I know.

  • SteveK

    Thank “goodness” my Martin is made from American Lumber!

  • JSpencer

    ” if the Madagascar wood trade was so blatantly corrupt, I would expect a reputable company like Gibson to be more cautious”


    My Peavey strat was made in Mississippi with wood grown in the USA! What is more, it plays better than my 62 Fullerton strat did – although it is worth thousands less. 😉

  • DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist

    thanks ES… my long ago red gibson… sold to pay tuition… but beautiful beautiful instrument…not sure where wood came from in the 1960s. Dont even want to think of what that red and yellow sunrise git-tar was worth now, let alone then. You do what you have to do.

    Not sure about Madagascar; we funded a literacy project there, and the people are very very decent and good, but often so so very poor and with many many children, and little or no educational opptys. The churches help, but also the Catholic church tho often helping, also preaches no choosing when to have children. I remember how in Alaska then and now, how across Africa then and now, in China, in Russia, then and now, in Burma, how the poorest of the poor do not abide by rules set by those often far more comfortable and well off.

  • Allen

    What we would we do without guitars?

    Don’t think there is exotic wood in a les paul.

  • Allen

    -[the poorest of the poor do not abide by rules set by those often far more comfortable and well off]-

    Millions would starve to death in a month if there was no underground economy within these poor nations. People find a way, but many don’t make it. They die.

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