Last week, the feds apparently raided the premises of Gibson Guitar
, searching for "illegal wood" used in those guitars. Apparently, the government and Gibson have been involved in an ongoing lawsuit for some time, after the feds seized some guitars in 2009 and a case commenced against the wood in the guitar (yes, against the wood, since it was one of those "in rem" cases): "United States of America v. Ebony Wood in Various Forms." Apparently, now the government is taking it up a notch, and while there is a grandfather clause, if you get your paperwork just marginally wrong and happen to own a Gibson guitar with illegal wood, the government could seize it and fine you. Apparently, a bunch of musicians are reasonably afraid, and some suggest not taking any such guitar out of the country if you ever plan on bringing it back:
John Thomas, a law professor at Quinnipiac University and a blues and ragtime guitarist, says "there's a lot of anxiety, and it's well justified." Once upon a time, he would have taken one of his vintage guitars on his travels. Now, "I don't go out of the country with a wooden guitar."
It's not enough to know that the body of your old guitar is made of spruce and maple: What's the bridge made of? If it's ebony, do you have the paperwork to show when and where that wood was harvested and when and where it was made into a bridge? Is the nut holding the strings at the guitar's headstock bone, or could it be ivory? "Even if you have no knowledge—despite Herculean efforts to obtain it—that some piece of your guitar, no matter how small, was obtained illegally, you lose your guitar forever," Prof. Thomas has written. "Oh, and you'll be fined $250 for that false (or missing) information in your Lacey Act Import Declaration."
And since this is a "strict liability" situation, asking the government for help in making sure you're being legal may actually make things worse. Much worse:
Consider the recent experience of Pascal Vieillard, whose Atlanta-area company, A-440 Pianos, imported several antique Bösendorfers. Mr. Vieillard asked officials at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species how to fill out the correct paperwork—which simply encouraged them to alert U.S. Customs to give his shipment added scrutiny.
There was never any question that the instruments were old enough to have grandfathered ivory keys. But Mr. Vieillard didn't have his paperwork straight when two-dozen federal agents came calling.
Facing criminal charges that might have put him in prison for years, Mr. Vieillard pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of violating the Lacey Act, and was handed a $17,500 fine and three years probation.
I'm all for not destroying the environment -- and if Gibson is really doing something bad, then that should be dealt with. But some of these other situations just seem flat out ridiculous. Don't the feds have more important things to do?