Been Caught Stealing!

gibson’s bust and international guitaring

A very surprising bit of news came up on the radar while The Cave was closed due to vacation and weather. It seems Federal Agents raided the Gibson Guitar company in Memphis and Nashville Tennessee because of alleged violations of the Lacey Act. As Geraldo Rivera would say, SHOCKING MAAN! (did he really ever say that?) Basically this act is supposed to enforce national (and by extension international) policies that protect endangered flora and fauna, such as Brazilian Rosewood or Tortoise Shell, from being used in musical instruments or anything else. The Lacey Act was passed in 1900 to regulate use of bird feathers in hats (eagle feathers are supposedly such a big no-no that you don’t EVEN wanna go there) and was updated in 2008 to include wood and other plant-based materials. You can read about the case here, here, and here, if you don’t already know about it. The most interesting and balanced summary I’ve found of the story and relevant issues is this PODCAST with John Thomas, a lawyer, author, AND guitar player. During the course of the podcast he discusses Gibson and their troubles, The Lacey Act and the international CITES laws.

Thomas points to some questionable things going on in the purchase of the materials Gibson imported. Whether it was actually Gibson, an in-between subsidiary or one of their overseas suppliers (the one guy they use [Roger Thunam] was in the news before) has yet to be determined. The way Thomas lays it out makes it sound like there could be a problem for Gibson especially if something is found on the now-confiscated electronic records. Thomas surmises that the government will be looking at whether the people involved in the international sphere that supplies Gibson with materials honestly don’t communicate well (it happens…even in 10-employee offices), or there was a deliberate attempt to mislead and misdirect. While the company and their CEO, Henry E. Juszkiewicz, have denied any wrongdoing, they will have to explain why certain things were mislabeled and recorded wrong on this last shipment of fingerboard materials. One thing I keep seeing in all of the reports on this story is the difference between not knowing how these laws work and messing up the paperwork (a bit of a stretch given the fact that Gibson has been in business since 1890) and deliberately lying and/or trying to get over, is the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony…whether you are a big guitar company or Joe or Jane Schmo trying to travel with, or import a guitar. Gibson had been busted on similar violations in 2009, so at the very least, they should’ve known they were on the radar. Also, this isn’t the company’s only concern. According to Glassdoor, an online site that allows workers to rate the company they work for, Gibson is one of the lamest employers in the United States. I know this is just the employees saying this but wow! The company has a paltry 1.8% rating and CEO Juszkiewicz has a meager 14% support rating. Even without the current headaches with the Feds, Gibson obviously has some major issues they need to deal with and that might involve getting rid of Juszkiewicz, who is described unfavorably in many reviews. Hopefully the company can do some soul-searching and re-emerge to be the GREAT COMPANY behind the ICONIC BRAND we all know and love.

Back in the day I worked for a very nice and cool and awesome textile designer and she had me do a bunch of research on selling to a country I’m not going to name. What I (we) learned is that while globalization was theoretically supposed to make international trade easier, that is rarely the case because there are as many different regulations as there are foreign markets. Guitar manufacturers and dealers already know this, at least they are supposed to, but now there are broader implications that apply to anyone who owns an instrument that is made out of protected materials. THIS is a very interesting read, especially if you are a guitar collector, buyer, seller, or traveler going through Customs, especially in Western countries, many of whom have their own laws that are different or stricter than what you might find at home (wherever that may be).

From what I understand by reading and listening to the podcast these are the important facts to consider. You now have to list all of the plant and animal material contained in the instrument — woods, bone, pearl, ivory, etc etc. Doesn’t matter if it’s illegal or protected or not, they want to know. As Thomas describes on the Podcast, US Fish and Wildlife now takes an IRS mentality with regards to imports because once you declare, you better be telling the truth. This is what I was saying earlier: messing up the declaration forms because you’re clueless is a misdemeanor, but if it is established you have deliberately lied you can be charged with a felony, and that ain’t no joke. If you are traveling with your instrument you have a personal exemption and you don’t have to get the paperwork… unless your instrument was built with Appendix 1 materials (Brazilian Rosewood, Ivory, Tortoise Shell etc) then there is no exemption. Realize that until the early 1990s many guitars were built with Brazilian Rosewood and even if it is just the fretboard, it is a material you should be listing. You also have to take the responsibility to find out what all of the Appendix 1 materials are. The safest bet, as Thomas points out, is to have a new guitar that was built with no controversial materials and carry that with you on tour or vacation or wherever you’re going. If you ship it you can not get a personal exemption. Another very important thing to realize is that these are the laws for the United States only and laws vary in other countries. This is spelled out in more detail in the Fretboard Journal article. I believe George Gruhn, the vintage guitar guru quoted below and owner of Gruhn Guitars, no longer ships internationally. (Emphasis below is mine).

Vintage-guitar guru George Gruhn amplifies Davis-Wallen’s concerns. “Look, this thing is a nightmare,” he says. “It’s cumbersome, illogical and nearly unintelligible. It’s hard enough to figure out what permits to obtain in the U.S., but it’s almost impossible to figure out the necessary permits to get a guitar in and out of another country. CITES only establishes a ‘floor’ of restrictions. The member countries can establish any other rules as long as they’re stricter than CITES. Imagine a touring musician who plans to visit several countries with a guitar with Brazilian rosewood back and sides. It would be almost impossible to comply with CITES and do the tour.”

Armed with Gruhn’s insights, I contacted the CITES secretariat in Geneva for practical advice and spoke to a fellow who preferred to be identified only as “spokesperson.”“Travelers,” he told me, “should be most concerned when traveling in or out of the U.S., E.U., Australia or Japan because those countries have the strictest enforcement efforts.” “And,” he added, “They have domestic laws that are stricter than CITES. You’ve got to pay very close attention to the legal requirements”

I put that plaque at the top of the post because I thought it was a cool picture and the quote, which comes from the Publius Terentius Afe, a Roman playwright better known as Terence can certainly be true. That said, I don’t have any personal experience with this and don’t know anyone who has had an instrument take away. From what I’ve seen online, many other people either had no idea that there was a reason for concern, or are trying to carry on and hope no one notices they have an instrument with controversial materials. Others online have politicized the issue or are trying to create political conspiracies where there don’t seem to be any and still others (like Gruhn) hope that the laws can be streamlined to the point where all of the environmental and workers rights can be protected without hassling dealers and musicians who are guilty of nothing more than have an instrument that is 30 years old. There seems to be a parallel to the TSA in the United States. While there have been many tales of overzealous groping, hassling, and infringement into the personal space of air travelers all in the name of SECURITY, I don’t know anyone personally who has experienced anything over-the-top. Once, when I was flying out of Milwaukee a TSA person was running the wand over me and it kept beeping even though I had removed all metal objects. She threw up her hands and took two steps back with a look of fear in her eyes that suggested she thought I was Khalid-Sheikh-Mohammed. A couple of burly guys came over and I dug in my pocket and pulled out a pack of Wrigley’s gum. It turns out the foil was making the scanner beep. I said, “Wow, I always carry guy and it hasn’t set off any other machines”. They rolled their eyes and moved back to their stations at the baggage machine. Another time I was flying out of NYC taking freshly-baked bagels to some friends on the west coast. The bagels caused quite a stir at the baggage scanner for five minutes, but then all was well. I think the lesson here is that some fairly innocuous items can sometimes lead to interest and let’s face it, you really give up any semblance of privacy or control if you are going to fly anywhere. I have brought stuff back from trips out of the country with no trouble from Customs Officials, but then again I wasn’t trying to import live snakes, drugs or anything else they would have a problem with. But the fact is it only takes ONE TIME for it to be a problem, if the “problem” is a favored or expensive guitar, and that’s why I probably wouldn’t risk trying to fly on the sly, if you know what I mean. The laws were created with the best of intentions maybe, but the enforcement is in the hands of many different people in many situations all over world and it seems that for now, musicians should probably consider their options carefully.