The Great Gibson Wood Kerfuffle

If you haven't heard, Gibson Guitars just settled a claim with the U.S. government over the importing of illegal woods. The government started its investigation nearly a year ago and last week Gibson decided to settle instead of pursue the issue in court. It doesn't sound like Gibson is fully admitting guilt, so much as they just want to move on with this and not get caught up in some protracted battle with the feds.

The crux of the issue centers around a 100-year old law known as the Lacey Act. Originally it was conceived as a way to curtail importing of animals that were illegal in other countries. Think of snake-skin boots and the like. Over the years the law has been amended and repurposed several times to account for plant materials. What's surprising about this law is that it effectively incorporates the laws of other nations. If Madagascar says you can't import certain rare woods from there (even if they'll sell them to you), the feds will enforce Madgascar's laws. Typically a strong spirit of American Exceptionalism prevents these sorts of laws from getting passed. I was quite surprised to learn this.

Each extension of the law has been hailed as a victory for the environment. On paper, each extension appears to make some sense. However this seems like another case of a law gone somewhat awry, particularly in light of the fact that Gibson is likely to be a target simply because of their high profile. The amount of wood they import is quite small compared with other US-based companies so it's easy to conclude that the U.S. govenement is making Gibson a very visible example. The reports of the feds showing up at the factory with firearms doesn't make the government look particularly sympathetic in this case and seems to play into the far-right's deepest fears of "black helicopters" and other such Big Brother paranoia.

Like any issue, there are many sides to the story. As I see it, the intent of the Lacey Act is an admirable one. In practice, going after Gibson may not have been smoothest move the Justice Department could make. I suspect some attorney buck is out to make a name for themselves and Gibson became an easy target. 


  1. New York Times "Dot Earth" Blog (8/8/2011): Drop That Guitar and Put Up Your Hands…
  2. New York Times "Dot Earth" Blog (8/6/2012) follow-up post
  3. SoundCheck: Wood 101 (podcast)