22 Sep 2011


Misinformation has been abundant in the media reporting of the Lacey Act investigation of Gibson guitars.

Particularly misleading has been the widespread suggestion that musicians could have their instruments seized on suspicion that they contain illegally harvested wood, even if those instruments were built many years ago.

Some commentators have even suggested that Michelle Obama could be arrested after giving France’s First Lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, a gift of a Gibson guitar during a recent state visit.

Peddlers of such myths fail to understand the fundamentals of the Lacey Act, most significantly the rule that in order for a prosecution to take place the buyer of wood must be aware of illegality.

For example, if Gibson can prove that they were unaware that the Madagascan rosewood they bought in 2009 was illegal in any way, they will be proved innocent.

This means that musicians will in most cases be entirely innocent: after all instrument manufacturers are rarely in the habit of sharing the finer wood purchasing details with their customers and only a fool would buy an instrument from a maker who told them that wood contained within it was illegal.

However, the above scenario is mostly hypothetical because the Lacey Act targets instrument manufacturers not individual musicians.

And in response to the hysteria whipped up in the blogosphere since the last Gibson raid on 24th August, US lawmakers recently sought to clarify this crucial distinction and put a stop to the nonsense debate.

In a letter addressed to US congresswoman, Marsha Blackburn, Republican representative for Tennessee, home of Gibson HQ, who has been leading the political assault on the Lacey Act in recent weeks, the Department of Justice and Department of the Interior sought to allay fears:

People who unknowingly possess a musical instrument or other object containing wood that was illegally taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of law and who, in the exercise of due care, would not have known that it was illegal, do not have criminal exposure.

The federal government focuses its enforcement efforts on those who are removing protected species from the wild and making a profit by trafficking in them.”

Andrea Johnson, Forest Campaign Director for the Environmental Investigation Agency, said  fears about instruments being seized are misguided: “Let’s be very clear here: no one is coming to take your Les Paul guitar.”

The Department of Justice and Department of the Interior’s statement comes at a time when many music and wood industry representatives are starting to find their voices in support of the Lacey Act.

Commenting on the Gibson case, Jameson French, CEO of Northland Forest Products, said: “If you’ve been under investigation for bringing in illegal ebony from Madagascar from a German importer called Nagel who was clearly doing illegal wood, why would you keep buying from that same importer?”

French, who also serves on the board of The Hardwood Federation, said the 2008 changes to the Lacey Act to include wood products have protected the American lumber industry from unfair competition and allegations that the import restrictions hurt American jobs are false:

“Perhaps they didn’t do the research before they jumped on the bandwagon. Because I can assure you that the large number of 13,000 small family companies that are represented by the Hardwood Federation have had positive benefits from the Lacey Act amendment.”

Charlie Redden, supply chain manager for Taylor Guitars, said his business hasn’t seen much disturbance: “We travel to these places and meet with the woodcutters and we ask some of those tough questions about where they’re getting their wood from, and physically see where the wood comes from.”

Mark Barford, executive director of the National Hardwood Lumber Association, said the limits on illegal wood sales in the United States and in other countries help maintain both the domestic and export markets:

“There are many hundreds and hundreds of small operators, even in the state of Tennessee, that count on fair trade and honest trade in order to stay competitive on the world market.”