Is Gibson Picking the Wrong Fight?

OPINION

It was great to go to Winter NAMM this past January and see all the energy in the Gibson booth—especially after the company had weathered bankruptcy, leadership changes, and scores of other challenges (such as some mind-bending build-quality issues at the end of the old regime). Many guitarists—including me—have long histories with Gibson products, and I’m pretty sure all of them want the brand to flourish.

But the recent (and currently deleted) YouTube diatribe by Gibson Director of Brand Experience Mark Agnesi seemed like ill-considered posing—a kind of macho, impulsive, slightly arrogant, and click-bait-generating message of the type that is unfortunately in fashion these days.

“To the manufacturers out there, we want you to know that you’ve been warned,” Agnesi stated, after discussing Gibson’s design history and cautioning against trademark infringement.

Since then, Gibson has filed trademark-infringement suits against Dean Guitars and Luna Guitars (both divisions of Armadillo Distribution Enterprises), and the smart money is on more suits being brought against other manufacturers in the near future.

As guitar makers and guitar players have really churned things up over the Gibson video, is this battle going to help or hinder the continuing health and reputation of a 125-year old company and the “New Gibson Brands”?

THE FIDELITY OF COPYRIGHTS

First, I believe that copyrights should be honored and protected. Of course. Would a sane person feel it’s okay to allow the toil, sweat, angst, and brain power of an artist, inventor, and/or business go south when those works are protected by law?

Oh, wait. Didn’t that happen to the music business?

Snarky commentary aside, if Gibson owns and controls certain design trademarks, they should absolutely be free to deploy all legal means necessary to protect those trademarks—and without any chatter from the peanut galleries. They did the work. They trademarked the work. They are protecting their assets against others chipping away at the revenue (and cultural impact) of trademarks that rightfully belong to Gibson alone. End of story.

BUT THEN AGAIN…

Guitar makers have copied and/or modified designs created by other companies since at least the guitar boom of the 1960s. Although there have been lawsuits filed from time to time—Gibson vs. the PRS Single-cut, anyone?—there have been so many, let’s say “tributes” to classic guitar designs over the years, that it seems the major guitar manufacturers have practiced long-term acquiescence over possible trademark infringements.

Gibson itself pulled a mind-blower in 2009, when it released a Jimi Hendrix-branded “Gibson Strat.” Not a Hendrix Flying V, which the guitar legend played occasionally (a Hendrix V was produced by the Gibson Custom Shop), but a model that could only be an outright copy of a FENDER Stratocaster.

According to a Reverb.com article, the “GibStrat” vanished from Gibson sites pretty fast for whatever reason, but does that reason even matter? Whether the model was actually sold or not, Gibson executives at the time obviously planned, manufactured, and marketed a design trademarked by another manufacturer. Businesses in glass factories and all that…

SEND IN THE CLONES

It’s somewhat unfair to call out Gibson for cloning non-Gibson-generated guitar designs, because a TON of manufacturers big, small, boutique, and all sizes in-between have virtually Xeroxed seminal and classic guitars and made them their own—sometimes with cool design tweaks, and sometimes with almost nothing visually different than a headstock “enhancement” and another company’s logo.

Truth be told, I’d rather see original designs from all manufacturers. When I was Editor in Chief at Guitar Player, it drove me batty that we were reviewing so many clones. I mean, near exact replicas of the guitars we all know and love. I simply didn’t get the point at all, and I was even baffled at the market for these clones—some of which were not less expensive (I’d grok that strategy), but more expensive than the original models made by the original manufacturers.

Of course—trademark-infringement territories not being considered (I’m no lawyer)—I was all in for true enhancements and rethinks of classic designs. Any machine where another creator’s brain and smarts significantly morphs the original look, power, facility, and stylistic growth of a seminal design—well, I’d simply file that under “Evolution.” Think “Super Strats” for shredders here. Other instances are legion. So is this stealing?

THE  QUESTION OF COUNTERFEITS

Players in the know are well aware that pretty decent forgeries of guitars by Gibson, Fender, Gretsch, PRS, and other brands are readily available online by offshore builders. A friend of mine purchased a clone of a 1959 Gibson Les Paul from one of these sites for under $300. The look is near perfect—from a distance, at least—and the headstock and Gibson logos are spot on. (It’s not like those counterfeit watches where a Tag Heuer Monaco might have a “Tag Heuar” logo on the watch face.) My buddy changed out the pickups and had the “fake” properly set up, and it’s a hell of a gigging guitar.

For further research, I sent one of these sites a photo of a Gretsch Custom Shop model, and it came back looking almost exactly like the original, and with the proper Gretsch logo, headstock, and design elements. The bridge and electronics were crap, but anyone who saw me play this beauty at a gig would wonder if I were crazy enough to bring a $15,000 Gretsch to a show in a seedy bar.

The point here—and the reason I was once considering doing a story for Guitar Player on these sites—is that an international market for counterfeit guitars is extremely well-established in the user community, and I haven’t heard of any USA or collaborative-manufacturer initiatives to bring these businesses down. There may be.

But would a more compelling battle for Gibson be one launched at offshore entities stealing their designs and selling them at super-affordable prices to guitarists across the planet? Just sayin…

A MATTER OF THE HEART

Mark Stoddard

Industry veteran and Lava Cable Product Specialist Mark Stoddard was so affected by Gibson’s recent actions that he called me for counsel about taking out some “Letter to Gibson” ads in the gear press. I think Mark has an interesting take on the debacle, as it appeals to the “player’s love” for a true Gibson, and what that love means for each of us. I’m publishing his letter in its entirety below…

“Dear Gibson: I have owned my customized ES-335 for more than 15 years. It is my go-to Number #1 guitar. She is a special guitar that I will never sell, and she plays like a dream. She formerly belonged to my bandmate, Steve Hudson, and was on display at his funeral. Steve named her “Etta Mae,” and this is now etched on the headstock plate. Steve died at 58 of cancer. He was an awesome individual, friend, and rhythm guitar player in the blues band we were in at Fayetteville, North Carolina, while I was a career officer in the United States Army. Steve and I had a unique bond. When I started Lava Cable, he provided me with great advice. When his health took the final turn for the worse, I visited him regularly in the hospital, and I held his hand as he died.

“As a tradition, every time I bring Etta Mae to a jam, I do my best to tell her story, and talk about Steve so I do not forget him. Etta Mae is part of my musical history, and I look forward to making more history with her as a tribute to my buddy.

“I believe more than being authentic, your amazing guitars are historic, and, like my Etta Mae, are making history every day. I, along with thousands of other guitarists around the world are rooting for you. We want Gibson to return to the greatness of its heyday. So tell us your story again. It’s a great one.”

Mark didn’t say this to me, but I take his letter as a plea for Gibson to promote, reinvent, and comport itself as a benevolent force with a glorious guitar mojo—a maker of instruments that have changed people’s lives in so many ways.

THE MERRY-GO-ROUND OF NEED-TO-KNOW & WANT-TO-KNOW AND THE ART OF GUITAR

Obviously, Gibson needs to do whatever it must to protect its business, its investments, its legacy, and its trademarks. I have no beef with that at all, and, typically, all of those legal machinations are done without troubling the broader public of players who simply love to play, and, generally, care little about a manufacturer’s corporate dealings.

One could argue that producing a VERY PUBLIC video to address business legalities, however, can perhaps rally the every day musicians who dig playing guitar to Gibson’s trademark dilemma. “Hey, that sucks. Poor Gibson. I’m not buying any infringement guitars! Sue those punks!”

On the other hand…

I’ve never met Agnesi, but as a content creator, I can visualize that styling yourself as “one of us” in sneakers, jeans, and a t-shirt under a leather jacket, but DELIVERING a business ultimatum that’s more appropriate to the world of suits and ties and depositions and tons of ugly business gymnastics that have NOTHING to do with how wonderful and inspiring and awesome a Gibson feels in a player’s hands, is probably NOT the right message a company fighting back from the brink should spotlight to its fans.

We love you, Gibson. Be better. Please.

 

Author: Michael Molenda

Founder of Guardians of Guitar. Longest-serving Editor in Chief of GUITAR PLAYER (1997-2018). Long live Link Wray and Mick Ronson!


2 thoughts on “Is Gibson Picking the Wrong Fight?

  1. Gibson has the right to protect their copyrights.

    At the same time, pro level guitars with multi thousand dollar price tags are not for everyone. Especially guys out there making small change on club dates.

    Gibson circumvents this issue with the Epiphone line. An Epiphone Les Paul
    Is at its heart a Chinese knockoff with a legally correct headstock. (I own many Epiphones, particularly of the Korean era) They look the part and get the job done but at the end of the day, the Gibson just plays and sounds better.

    I own an ‘88 Les Paul in wine red, autographed personally by Mr Paul himself.
    I have become skittish about taking it to club dates due to its ever appreciating value both monetary and sentimental.

    My remedy to this problem was a Gibson LPJ. All the Les Paul mojo we love in a bare bones package. Kudos to Gibson for making that possible.

    My point here is the LPJ line was not well received by “purists” for not being elegant enough and living up to The ”Gibson Standard”. Granted, I had to file the fret ends but THATS IT! And I’ve got a gigging “real” Les Paul with the feel and a sonically interesting maple neck. It’s a great workhorse and a good effort to produce a pro level instrument That you can buy without taking a mortgage. It’s a great guitar and came in at about $100 more than a Epiphone Les Paul. I was appreciative of Gibson for making this option possible and would encourage them to continue to do battle in the “better than entry” level arena as opposed to the courtroom. These guitars are the real article and will get used.

    Replicas are fun. You can cut them up and modify them into whatever you want but at the end of the day they are not worthy of heirloom status. I also doubt that anybody in search of the Gibson feel and playability is looking to China for purchase. I can’t imagine the replicas are hurting Gibson that badly.

  2. Once again you’ve found a way to express yourself (and no doubt the feelings of many others) without being preachy, petty, or pompous.
    I commend you. I myself found it interesting that Gibson is doing this now, when some of those Dean guitars have been available for years.

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