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Gibson Guitars Under Investigation


Gibson guitars at the company’s factory in Nashville. Photo by Jeff Adkins/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

An unlikely culprit has stirred up an unusual controversy in the music community: The Lacey Act, legislation aimed to curb illegal logging. Based on suspicions that the Gibson Guitar Corporation violated the act, federal agents raided the company’s facilities in Nashville and Memphis in late August, raising concern among musicians that their instruments could be at risk of government confiscation.

Acting on suspicions that ebony shipped to the company from India violated the Lacey Act, federal agents seized guitars, pallets of wood and computers. A government raid on Gibson in 2009 was based on similar allegations.

The Department of Justice has yet to file any charges, and Gibson continues to deny any wrongdoing. Yet the raid has had a ripple effect on the industry, and worry spread among musicians and collectors that vintage instruments built before a 2008 amendment to the Lacey Act that prohibits the illegal trade of plant products could also be seized, according to The Tennessean.

Last week, Tennessee Reps. Jim Cooper and Marsha Blackburn announced congressional legislation in Nashville that they say will protect musicians and instrument dealers from any “unintended consequences” of the Lacey Act and maintain the act’s environmental protections. They also said the RELIEF Act would have no bearing on current ongoing investigations.

In fact, even before the Gibson raid in August, Rep. Cooper was hearing concerns about the act from his constituents.

“We have so many musicians that work out of the Nashville area that call this part of the country home and they are traveling globally and…carrying musical instruments with them,” said Rep. Blackburn, a Republican who represents the 7th Congressional District in Tennessee. “We are hearing from them, concern for getting those instruments both into and out of country.”

Jeffrey Brown spoke to Anita Wadhwani of The Tennessean on Wednesday about the case:

It is still unclear if instruments made from illegal woods are at risk of being confiscated. A letter sent by the Department of Justice to Rep. Blackburn in September asserted that people who “unknowingly possess a musical instrument or other object containing wood that was illegally taken” would not face criminal charges. But some, including Mary Luehrsen, director of public affairs and government relations for the National Association of Music Merchants, said that the letter wasn’t enough protection. “It’s an informal ruling, it doesn’t exist within the statute,” Luehrsen said.

Cooper and Blackburn’s RELIEF Act, short for the Retailers and Entertainers Lacey Implementation and Enforcement Fairness Act, will grandfather wood products, including instruments, made before the 2008 amendment to the Lacey Act and protect unknowing owners from prosecution. The act is backed by supporters such as country singers Vince Gill and Rosanne Cash and music organizations, including the National Songwriters Association.

“Everybody and their bassist wants this,” said Stephen George, press secretary for Rep. Cooper.

However, not all parties seem to be on board. “The amendments represent a gutting of one of the most consequential, important trade and environmental laws,” said Lisa Handy, a senior policy adviser at the Environmental Investigation Agency.

The Lacey Act, originally passed in 1900, prohibits the illegal trade of wildlife. It was amended in 2008 to include plants at a time when American logging companies were losing up to a billion dollars each year because of illegally sourced wood, according to Handy.

In response to assertions that RELIEF will weaken environmental protections, George said in an email that RELIEF leaves in place penalties for knowing violators of the act. It’s those who have unknowingly acquired products banned by Lacey who would be considered under the new penalties outlined in the RELIEF Act.

Components of the RELIEF Act are based on a consensus statement signed and supported by a variety of industries ranging from musical manufacturers to environmental groups, including the EIA, George pointed out.

Both environmentalists and representatives of the logging industry say the Lacey Act has proven effective in preventing illegal logging. In September the legislation even won an award at the Future Policy Awards for the world’s best forest policies, announced at U.N. headquarters.

“Illegal logging has dropped as much as twenty percent and a strong message was sent to the world that the USA means business about stopping it,” Jameson French, CEO of Northland Forest Products, wrote in an email. “I honestly can’t imagine that any musician would want to have illegal wood in their instruments.”

Rep. Blackburn said she and the RELIEF act’s co-sponsors are working hard to move the legislation forward in a timely matter. Until then, it looks like the music industry will have to play it by ear.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated.

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