Okay. I have held off from letting my opinions fly in this highly controversial bit of news centering around Gibson and the lawsuits and destruction of counterfeit guitars. I have found that if I immediately start throwing my opinion and feelings around, I usually miss a piece of the big picture. Sure enough as I thought through things over the course of a week or so, I was able to get some clarity and quite frankly sympathy for both sides of the fence.
I am not going to go into all of the details about what was/is going on, so if you haven’t heard anything then make sure to browse Google and YouTube to read up. Really interesting stuff. Basically to summarize Gibson is filing lawsuits against companies that are making guitars that infringe or appear to have infringed on Gibson’s copyrights.
My goal in writing this article is to spark friendly conversation and debate among guitarists in the Worship Music scene. I think as we work through issues like this together we gain clarity and appreciation for everyone’s opinions and beliefs. I also hope to raise a few questions that you may have not thought of.
What is the Real Issue at Hand?
There are tons of different facets to these lawsuits but right now for me this can be divided into two different issues that Gibson is trying to address:
- “Counterfeit” guitars that have the name Gibson falsely printed on them.
- “Inspired by” guitars that have changed a some aspect of the guitar’s design.
There are tons of arguments and variations of these two issues going on currently, but if you boil it all down to the core, these are the two that are really at hand. The action taken towards these two issues in my opinion deserve different actions. Let’s start with the “Counterfeit” side of things.
Some of you who read my stuff often, probably know that I managed an online music store about a decade ago. While running this store, I gained a ton of knowledge on guitars, history and unfortunately Gibson counterfeits.
It all started one afternoon when a gentleman brought in a wine red Gibson Les Paul Standard. He said that he wanted to find out how much it was worth. It had the plus top, flame maple, bound rosewood neck, black Gibson head stock and every feature a Gibson Les Paul should have. Even the case was black with white plush interior and gold Gibson logo just like the authentic ones of that modern era. Everything looked spot on. There was just something off about it though.
He said he had bought it a week earlier from another shop locally, who will remain un-named, which alarmed me. Why would he buy it and a week later be asking how much it was worth? Anyways, he paid $1800 for it which at the time was a bit high even for the used market. I could tell though that he still was not telling me the whole story.
If you have read up on Les Paul counterfeits you have probably heard how to spot a fake and that one of the signs is that the “Gibson” logo on the headstock is tilted at the wrong angle. That was the first sign to me. It just didn’t look right. It looked too straight across, like the lettering wasn’t italicized enough. That said, I didn’t have another authentic Les Paul to compare it to, so unfortunately I couldn’t hang my hat on the headstock logo issue.
I ended up taking out the neck pickup of the guitar and that was when I knew it was a fake. Real Les Paul’s have a neck joint that extends down underneath some of the neck pickup. This one did not. It just stopped right where the body started.
Needless to say, I found out that this was a fake and only was worth around $150-$200 bucks. The guy then chimed in and told me that he knew it was a fake and needed confirmation from another source as he was trying to get his money back from the store he bought it from. I was able to point out the flaws to the store and they refunded the gentleman his money. The store in this case was the party that lost out. They received the guitar on trade for something of much higher value and unfortunately did not spot that it was a good fake.
But was the guitar store the only party that was effected in this deal? Without an advanced degree in economics and all of the financial records from Gibson, I will probably never understand the entire impact of counterfeit guitars, but what I can tell you, is that guitar was not the only counterfeit Les Paul out there. In reality there are hundreds even tens of thousands of copies out there. Each time someone buys one of those counterfeits they are taking money out of Gibson’s pocket and quite literally stealing from Gibson.
How it All Started
There are varying accounts of how counterfeiting Gibson’s got started but this is the one that makes the most sense to me. If you do any amount of research on counterfeit Les Paul guitars you will find that most of the counterfeits actually have legitimate Gibson serial numbers on them. This was the case on the Wine Red Les Paul that walked through my shop’s doors as well. I even called Gibson and sure enough they had record of the guitar. The serial number even matched the color as well.
I have not had this corroborated, but what I have heard is that in the early days of music e-commerce guitars would get damaged in shipping. The necks would snap, pipes would get ran through bodies, so on, so forth. USPS, UPS and FedEx would reimburse those who purchased insurance for the guitars and then in turn pickup the damaged guitars.
Those damaged guitars were then sold on eBay for pennies on the dollar, opening the market for foreign companies, primarily Chinese companies, to buy them up. These companies took the exact serial numbers off and made as close to exact replica’s as they could with cheaper materials and craftsmanship. They even stamped the serial number on the back of the headstock! Now you are probably thinking, okay what is the big deal. They copied “a” guitar. The problem is they took that serial number and stamped it on the back of thousands of fake Gibson Les Paul headstocks then pumped these $100-$150 guitars out into the market place at $1200-$1500. People thought they were getting a real Les Paul for a deal, Gibson is left scratching their head wondering what the heck is going on, and the Chinese companies are making bank.
I would venture to say that most of those people who bought these eventually caught on, but Gibson’s brand value took a huge hit. With these guitars hitting the market at lower prices, it cheapened the product and also the Gibson brand.
But Why is Gibson Just Now Trying to Fix it?
In short they are not “just now trying to fix it”. They have been suing and confiscating counterfeit guitars for quite sometime. In fact they had/have agreements with eBay, Amazon and other auction sites that allow them to police those sites, spot fakes and immediately have them removed. There are also older stories of Gibson and other large brands confiscating and destroying guitars.
The mistake that Gibson made is the public and for lack of a better word, loud method they used in addressing these issues. The problem with their approach is that it came across as very arrogant and pompous. I bet that people including myself were sitting at home watching Mark Agnesi’s Play Authentic video thinking, Well, yeah fella, I would play original if Gibson would make a great guitar again. The problem is that like it or not Gibson lost the respect of it’s customers. Now I am not saying that they don’t legally have a leg to stand on. What I am saying is that this video would have came across much better if they had first went through and fixed their production, quality control and customer service issues. Not only fixed them but given the market a few years to recognize that Gibson has changed and returned to their “Authentic” roots. Sorry Gibson, people are not going to pay $3000 for an “Authentic” guitar that is quite frankly junk. Prove that you are making good quality instruments and running your business in a customer first manner.
I am sure Gibson won’t just come out and say it but they are trying to rebuild their brand. You can see it from the return to their core line offerings to videos like the one from Mark above. They are trying to get back what they lost. Otherwise they never would have posted that video. They also would not have removed the video after the huge back-lash it garnered.
Over the last 10-15 years Gibson has taken a beating in the public’s eye ranging from quality control issues to bad customer service. Similar to eBay in terms of music instrument sales, they got high on their horse, feeling like no one can touch them. They got lazy in manufacturing, QC and rather than own up to it and fix it, they continued to pump bad product out knowing that people will still buy them because they say Gibson.
Anyways, sorry for rambling. The just of it is that Gibson has a new CEO at it’s helm and with new vision they are trying to rebuild not only Gibson’s reputation but also their brand. Quite frankly, everything they have done with their core offerings and say they are doing with quality is exciting. I sincerely hope Gibson returns to it’s roots and starts making incredible guitars again.
If It’s Wrong Does Timing Matter?
In the end I have to ask the question. If it is wrong, does it really matter when someone speaks up? The answer is no. Does Gibson probably wish they would have dealt with these issues years ago. Again I am guessing but let’s just say YES of course they wish they would have. But they didn’t. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t do it right now though. In these cases of Gibson’s name being used on counterfeit guitars, it is absolutely the right thing for them to do to go after those that are falsely selling guitars with Gibson’s name on them.
I completely stand behind Gibson suing and then destroying counterfeit guitars. One of the arguments I have read and heard is that “those guitars could have been donated to kids who cannot afford guitars”. My rebuttal to that is, what happens when that kid doesn’t end up sticking with guitar and flips the guitar on Reverb or eBay for a profit? Now there is more money exchanging hands for a product that is not authentic. It is absolutely devastating to not only Gibson but the global economy for any company to allow counterfeits to remain in circulation.
Think of it this way. Would we ever argue that counterfeit money should remain in circulation? I would hope that no one would argue that, because one it isn’t legal and two it is stealing and lying.
Guitars “Inspired By”
Can You Really Copyright Individual Features of a Guitar?
Let’s step outside of guitars and look at violins, flutes, saxophones and pretty much every other instrument out there. Stradivarius didn’t go out and sue every other violin manufacturer for copying his design. What you do know though is that Stradivarius is the best violin you can get. The brands that have came after will never change that. It is the same thing with Gibson and Fender.
Gibson and Fender need to hang their hat on that legacy. Hang their hat on their quality, craftsmanship and how they treat their customers. Fender has done it. Quite frankly I would argue that there are more strat and tele counterfeits and copies out there than Gibson copies and Fender isn’t getting bent out of shape. Instead they have grown their custom shop, innovated in new products that are in line with what their customers are asking for.
The reality is that you can trace pretty much all electric guitars back to Fender and Gibson and all guitars, no matter how different they are sonically or cosmetically, can be traced back to these models:
- Fender Telecaster
- Fender Stratocaster
- Gibson Les Paul
- Gibson ES-335
There might have been brands that even Fender and Gibson received inspiration from but if we look at history we can see a spiderweb start to form where everything branches off from the originals.
From the orginals you have hybrid brands like Gretsch who borrowed sonic characteristics from Fender and Gibson while remaining closer to the Gibson aesthetic. In the end it goes back to those two brands as the inspiration.
At the next level you have the companies that came in and took what Gibson and Fender did and heavily modified their designs. For sake of argument let’s say they changed 50% or more of the guitars overall design to get their new designs. These companies would be Gretsch, PRS, Schecter, ESP and Ibanez.
At the next level down you have companies that have taken inspiration from all of these companies and made extremely high-end instruments that carry a much higher price tag than the arguably mass produced Fender and Gibson brands. Companies operating in this “boutique” guitar space would be in the vein of Collings, Suhr and most recently Elliot and Veritas who both leverage fairly standard designs but provide value and set themselves apart in the high level of craftsmanship and quality of materials used.
Along the same lines would be guitars taking heavy inspiration from the second teir for example, Duesenberg is heavily inspired by Gretsch, who is in turn inspired by Gibson. The crazy thing is that it doesn’t stop there. There are probably another 5-10 layers of guitar brands in the industry and we haven’t even started speaking to effects pedals and amps yet! I hope by now you get what I am trying to illustrate, in that as history goes on the more guitar companies that start up, the smaller the differences become.
So, can you really copyright individual features of a guitar? In my non-legal opinion, no you can’t. This opinion was backed up by the early 2000’s lawsuit of Gibson vs. PRS. In the end the single cut away shape of the guitar cannot in itself be copyrighted. It is just too general.
That being said, I have to question whether it is ethically and morally right for these manufacturers to build inspired by or copied guitars. Like it or not there is a finite amount of guitarists in the world. This pool of guitarists is what we would call the “market” in business terms and as mentioned this market does have a cap, meaning at some point everyone that plays guitars will have their guitars and the new market will slow down.
What we are heading towards and I believe we are partially already there is a market that is so over-saturated with product that no manufacturer can make any money. Competition is good but if there are too many players in one space no one can make money.
Let’s take a look at the car industry. There are only a handful of companies who make cars. I argue that the guitar industry should be similar. Not the same but similar. In my years in the industry there seem to be the following core sections in the market:
- Boutique Hand-Made Custom Guitars: Veritas, Elliot, Suhr, PRS, Fano, etc.
- Original Designs: Fender, Gibson & probably Gretsch
- Affordable Versions: Squier & Epiphone
- Inspired by Brands: PRS, Schecter, ESP, Ibanez etc.
- Extremely Cheap Starter Guitars: First Act, etc.
Between these brands, the only market that stands to grow is the boutique market. The only reason for this is that with boutique brands the build times are much longer, meaning the demand is higher than the supply meriting more companies.
All of the other holes in the industry, quite frankly have been filled and are approaching over saturation.
All Things are Permissible, Not All Things are Beneficial
I have seen so many guitar companies formed because one guy got fired or ticked off at his boss so he went out on his own. Sounds quite a lot like church to me. What it is doing is dividing everyone to the point that everyone is working hard but no one is making money. This is coming from a guy that has toyed with the idea of starting a guitar company, pedal company, cable company or amp company. The question that entrepreneurs have to ask is not whether or not we can make money on this, but rather, can we bring something new to the market that isn’t already done. Another question to ask is, what hole in the market does this fill and is it a hole that actually needs filled?
Gibson and Fender filled holes in the market with their budget lines Squier and Epiphone. Schecter and Ibanez filled holes by making more aggressive, harder rocking versions of Fenders and Gibsons. There was a growing market of high end clientele looking for one-off hand-made guitars so companies like PRS, Suhr, Elliot and Veritas have filled these holes.
I have to question whether there are any more holes to fill? I am not saying that no one else should start a guitar company, or am I? 😉
Gibson Needs to Take Some of the Blame
While this article in the most part sides with Gibson they are not blameless in the pains they are facing.
Companies like Martin, Taylor and PRS have enjoyed long runs of great success, because they have remained true to their values, quality and their customers. As times change their designs and innovations change but they have remained true to building high-quality instruments. Gibson has not. They are like the rich college kid who went and partied all their money and time away. They spent their funds on inventions such as robotic guitars when the industry wasn’t even asking for it and then really hurt themselves by allowing quality to dip.
I don’t care what anyone has to say at Gibson, the last decade and a half of guitars produced is an embarrassment to the brand. It is a complete shame the number of $2500 plus guitars I have seen where the frets were not leveled, binding wasn’t taped properly, book matched flame maple looks like someone that was drunk lined it up. This is un-acceptable.
I had a customer once bring in a brand new Custom Shop $4000 ES-335 that I almost cut myself on the frets they were so sharp. One of my favorite sounding Les Pauls, even though it sounded great, was one of the worst guitars I had scene cosmetically. The binding wasn’t taped and/or scraped correctly so the finish bled over the white binding leaving this jagged cheap look reminiscent of the cheap counterfeits Gibson is suing and destroying.
Their logo inlays on their headstocks are so sloppy with glue residue seeping out around the edges of the inlay that I question whether it was my 4 year old doing it or a craftsman of multiple decades. Now I know that there are world class Gibson guitars that were made over the past few years but the number of absolutely crappy instruments far exceeds the number of great ones.
I say this not to insult Gibson but to say, wake up! Figure out whatever issues you have going on with production and QC (and maybe they already have) so that you can go back to making guitars that merit not only the Gibson price tag but the Gibson name. Start taking pride in the instruments you put out. Stop being loud arrogant bullies. Forget about the people who have made similar guitars and figure out how to make “the best” guitar. Your price tag merits that attention to detail.
If you build it, they will buy. Yeah I went there. The truth is, there is a reason boutique manufacturers are 18 and 24 months back logged. People want to buy quality.
Gibson has some brand equity left in their name but they need to step up and prove they deserve that market share.
Here are some great videos on the topic from a guy that shares much of my same opinions:
Looking at this entire series of events from an ethical perspective, I think that Gibson is 100% justified in their approach to getting rid of counterfeits in the market. It is wrong on so many levels for these companies to make counterfeit guitars.
I don’t back their actions in suing other companies like PRS, Dean, etc who are just making guitars that are for lack of a better term “inspired by” Gibson. I don’t back this because Gibson allowed it to happen by not building quality products, and continually innovating by listening to what their customers want.