Gibson Guitars, the Lacey Act, and You

I would guess we all have heard about the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s raid on the Gibson Guitar company on August 25th. If you haven’t, you need to push back the rock a little.

The U. S. Attorney’s Office in Tennessee originated the warrants for possible violations of the Lacey Act, as amended in 2008. This act makes it illegal to import any wood or any item containing wood that was harvested, manufactured, or exported in any way contrary to the laws of the originating country. In other words, when Gibson imported wood from India, if any Indian laws were broken in doing so, then the wood becomes contraband and then Gibson is liable for illegally importing that wood into the United States.

The problem is, the Attorney General’s Office decides if the foreign country’s laws have been broken, and in this case, NOT the Indian Government. In fact on September 16, Vinod Srivastava, an official in India’s foreign trade office, issued a letter explaining that the wood imported by Gibson was legally exported from India. However, in a sworn statement to the courts, the Fish and Wildlife Service basically implies that the Indian Government is not as capable of interpreting their own law as is the United States Attorney’s Office.

This is not the first time Gibson was raided by the Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2009, most of the guitar makers were legally importing ebony and other woods from Madagascar. On March 16, 2009, the military in that country over threw the government. Since the Administration found the new government of Madagascar to be illegal, then they allegedly decided that any laws of that government were illegal so any wood bought from that country was now contraband. So, on November 17, 2009, they raided and confiscated wood from Gibson Guitars and they still have it, and no charges have been filed.

In a true twist of fate, Gibson Guitars, along with many other luthiers, were instrumental in getting the 2008 amendment to the Lacey Act passed. It was meant to level the playing field against Chinese instrument makers who did not have to abide by the international trade restrictions our manufacturers were living under. Now, under the current interpretation, Lloyd Loar would be a common criminal. As most well-meaning environmental legislation is inclined to do, it has brought unintended consequences.

In January of this year, a Georgia piano dealer was fined $17,500 and given three years probation for importing elephant ivory. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided that the 100 YEAR OLD ivory keys of the antique pianos he bought overseas and brought to Atlanta to refurbish were “illegal trade in ivory” and confiscated the pianos and other items belonging to the company.

So, your Brazilian rosewood cufflinks which belonged to your Grandfather are now illegal contraband. You could be arrested and fined up to $500,000 for leaving the country and then coming back in with those cuff links without proof of where, when, and how the wood was harvested. It kind of makes you look at your collection of antique rosewood smoking pipes in a different light doesn’t it?

Tim Knight

Posted in: