Did Gibson Steal Their Most Famous Designs?

Did Gibson Steal Their Most Famous Designs?

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In the middle of last month some real drama hit the YouTube guitar world. If you didn’t see, Gibson published a video to YouTube entitled “Play Authentic” but quickly and quietly removed it after the criticism began rolling in. The source of the negative comments were Gibson’s Director of Brand Experience, Mark Agnesi’s quotable lines, such as:

“This isn’t about us being bullies or trying to stifle the boutique marketplace” and, “You have been warned, we’re looking out and we’re here to protect our iconic legacy.” 

Of course, the consensus is that counterfeit instruments built to deceive hurt the marketplace and regularly fall well below the standards set by guitar companies like Martin, Fender, and even Gibson. To have your product mis-represented by a counterfeit or to have your bottom line affected by a cheap overseas knock-off is worthy of litigation.

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But he looks so cool in that leather jacket, surely Gibson can't be in the wrong!

LAWSUITS

However, the lawsuit that was then being pursued by Gibson was against Dean Guitars owner Armadillo Enterprises. Not exactly a cheap knock-off. In fact, some would argue they’re an improvement.

Armadillo Enterprises had this to say:
“We believe that Gibson’s claims are baseless and will vigorously defend ourselves… As the proud owner of some of the most famous brands in the music industry, we respect and value the intellectual property rights of others. But we also recognise that some things are just too commonplace and basic for one company to claim as its property. Dean Guitars has been continuously offering the V and Z-shaped guitars at issue in the lawsuit since at least 1976 – for over the past 40 years.”

Gibson’s work in trying to claim exclusivity to the flying V body shape does not stop there though. They took a similar case to Europe and lost. The court declaring, “there has been no demonstration of distinctive character acquired,” by the Flying V body shape and, “that when the application for registration of the challenged mark was filed, the V-shape did not depart significantly from the norms and customs of the sector.”

Not happy with the outcome, Gibson appealed twice. A panel of three judges dismissed Gibson’s second appeal, stating the Flying V “was very original when it was released on the market in 1958, it cannot however deny the evolution of the market during the following 50 years, which was henceforward characterised by a wide variety of available shapes.”

This EU case all took place in 2018, around the time the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and announced it would be restructuring and closing down its unprofitable consumer electronics divisions.

In an industry full of tradition many companies offer interpretation of classic body styles, this is something Gibson wants to see end. I’m sure with Gibson taking the moral high ground and demanding repercussions for derivative products their history is squeaky clean. Right? Let’s investigate.

C.F. MARTIN AND CO.

C.F. Martin and Co. was established in 1833, nearly a century later they released their dreadnought line in the 1930’s (early models of dreadnoughts being manufactured by Martin but released through the Oliver Ditson Company as early as 1916). With the release of this innovative and revolutionary guitar many newer companies jumped on the bandwagon releasing their interpretations. One such company had been on the scene for just 30 years and released a line of “Jumbo” guitars. That’s right, Gibson (being the gatekeepers of all things authentic) brought a Martin copy to market. It was great too, many bluegrass musicians have played Martin D-28s and Gibson J-45s. In fact, hundreds of companies have released D-style guitars. Martin welcomes the competition and still makes one of the best products available.

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A rare 1929 Oliver Ditson Dreadnought.

But hey, acoustic guitars are all the same! Gibson never stole any designs for electric guitars! Right?

O.W. APPLETON

In 1941 O. W. Appleton purchased a plank of pine, and carved a single cutaway, arched-top, solid-body electric guitar. Realizing his brilliant solution to the headache of amplifying his acoustic guitar he called his friends at Gibson and purchased a neck blank to complete his new guitar. He called it the “APP”. Unlike other electric guitars at the time, this was neither a hollow body or a Hawaiian style lap steel guitar. After some refinement he took his guitar to Gibson to talk manufacturing possibilities for the model. They told him that no one would play it. Appleton attempted to patent his design but had no access to a patent attorney. After having his money stolen from several fake patent attorneys by mail and with factories dedicated to the war effort he gave up on his patent.

O.W. Appleton with the APP guitar, circa 1964.

In 1952 Appleton received a letter from a friend at Gibson that read, “Well, App, you see our competition (Fender) has finally forced us to come out with your solid guitar. Sure wish we had listened to you back in 1943.” The letter included a brochure for the new Gibson Les Paul. App threw the letter out in anger.

Okay, so maybe their most iconic acoustic and electric guitar shapes were created by heavily borrowing from other sources but surely at least the open-book headstock is their design right!?

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Uh oh, this looks kind of old...

Guess not…

Lucky for us, Gibson is now doing what they do best. Backpedaling. Their brand name has been irreparably damaged in the eyes of many and though they continuously promise to make changes, we keep seeing their name in the news. I only hope that in the near future they drop the we-can-steal-but-you-can’t attitude and let the industry evolve the way it always has. Maybe a more solid solution to their problem would be to offer a better product then companies like Dean. But hey, at least they aren’t destroying the rainforest or anything.

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