Gibson’s Guitar Factory Raided Over Imported Wood

American guitar maker Gibson is once again facing some legal trouble with the federal government over the alleged illegal importation of protected wood. On Wednesday morning, federal agents stormed Gibson’s facility in Nashville, TN and forced workers to leave. In the raid, agents captured several wood pallets and guitars made of wood imported from India. Agents also seized electronic files from Gibson.

The government may bring charges against Gibson for breaking a law prohibiting the import of endangered plants and wood.

Gibson’s Chief Executive Officer Henry Juszkiewicz believes the guitar company did nothing illegal. Says Juszkiewicz, “Gibson has complied with foreign laws and believes it is innocent of any wrong doing. We will fight aggressively to prove our innocence.”

Juszkiewicz further argues that for many years, Gibson has been working with numerous environmental organizations, including the Rainforest Alliance and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), to find wood from environmentally responsible sources. Gibson and other guitar makers, including Martin, Taylor, Fender, Yamaha, and Guild, have all promised to only use wood certified by the FSC to ensure the wood was harvested responsibly.

He feels the government is bossing the guitar maker around. Gibson’s facilities were raided because the federal government interpreted an Indian law their own way, without the knowledge or approval of the Indian government. When he asked which Indian law Gibson violated, the federal government refused to respond.

Gibson has been probed by the federal government several times in the past over wood with questionable origins. In 2009, federal agents raided the guitar maker’s factory on suspicion of illegally acquired rosewood and ebony from Madagascar. The country banned the harvest of these woods since 1996.

And in July of 2011, agents spotted a shipment of Indian ebony and rosewood being delivered to the Gibson factory which prompted the agents to confiscate computers from Gibson.

The increased government action against Gibson also has musicians, hobbyists, and collectors worried. Instruments made of materials that have been banned must have complete and extensive documentation, which is sometimes impossible to obtain. Supply chains can go through many different nations, including developing countries, and the exact origin of woods can easily be reported incorrectly.

For instance, Pascal Vieillard and his company A-440 Pianos in Atlanta, GA, imported a number of antique pianos. When he requested assistance from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to properly fill out paperwork on the pianos, the convention notified U.S. Customs. Agents soon arrested Vieillard for importing the pianos, whose keys were made of ivory. He later pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charges, paid $17,500 in fines, and was held for three years on probation.

So why would musicians and enthusiasts cling on to these instruments if it could bring major trouble to them? One reason is simply because the tone and sound older instruments make are sometimes more desirable than any guitar produced today. The type of wood used to make guitar bodies and parts impacts how the guitar will sound. Cheaper guitars made of plywood have a substantially less pleasing sound than, for instance, a more expensive guitar made of real wood such as mahogany.

Despite its intention to help the environment, is this a case where the federal government is going too far? Gibson’s CEO believes so. Says Juszkiewicz, “The federal bureaucracy is just out of hand and it seems to me there’s almost a class warfare of companies versus people, rich versus poor, Republicans versus Democrats and there’s just a lack of somebody that stands up and says, ‘I’m about everyone. I’m really about America and doing what’s good for the country and not fighting these little battles.’”

So while Gibson’s workers are sent home and guitar production paused, a number of eco-friendly guitars might be a possible alternative. Made of materials ranging from bamboo to recycled electronics, musicians afraid of getting caught up in legal troubles may appreciate these radically different musical instruments.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/joeflood/2853347520

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