Manufacturers will go to extreme lengths to protect their brands and trademarks. It is simply a matter of business. Unscrupulous manufacturers will make counterfeit instruments. Other established manufacturers will sometimes make competitive and comparable equipment, and sometimes come a little too close to the product that is already in the marketplace, and what results is a lawsuit.
Manufacturers need to look after their trademarks. Part of the reason behind this is to protect against a customer getting an inferior instrument thinking it is actually from the real brand. The net result of this situation is that the customer no longer trusts the brand, even though they didn’t even make the item in question.
To be clear, this is a different issue from patent infringement. Patents protect inventions, processes and formulas. Trademark refers to the visual shape of something, a logo, a design. In terms of guitars, the body shape and headstock shape. In terms of pedals, a unique housing (the circuit itself would be patent issue). To look at other ends of the biz, the shape or color scheme of a mixer, the design of a microphone, or the look of a turntable would be the source of trademark infringement. Again, we’re focused on the aesthetics.
So let’s look at the counterfeit issue first. Think about money. If you were going to counterfeit money (don’t try this at home, really), you’d try to match paper, color, size, and every little detail that you can. One thing out of place, and it soon becomes apparent that this bill isn’t right.
Take a look at our first article on a counterfeit, the’54 Goldtop Reissue. You’ll start picking out the details quickly. But if you aren’t familiar with a ’54 reissue, or the Les Paul in general, the counterfeit instrument looks fairly good. The counterfeit’s primary aesthetics match very closely. The shape is pretty close to right, the headstock looks good except for the extra screw in the truss rod cover, the colors are off, but close. The functional details are different, the one-part bridge, the wrong pickups, the wrong control configuration.
But sometimes, the match is pretty good. We had a guitar once in our shop that was sold to us as an older Ibanez Jem, and we’re working up a page on it. We bought it in good faith, and even though we carry the same guitar new, we didn’t compare them. I think we were out of stock. Let’s be fair. Sometimes you get an employee who just doesn’t look very hard. I even once had a salesperson try out and buy our own amp from a customer once. They aren’t always that bright.
The thing about this Jem copy, though , is that it was old, the chrome was pitted, it had some knicks, it played good, and had good hardware. Not like this Les Paul counterfeit. None of us noticed it was a counterfeit for months, and by that time, we were out the money and we sold it for whatever we could get for it.
Point is, this one was very close, and it was a good guitar.
Counterfeit instruments often have to be just good enough, and usually sell for about a third or less than the real deal. They often get sold on eBay as the real thing, or on several fly-by-night web sites. There once was a “cheapguitarcenter.com” that had dozens of models of Les Paul, PRS, Fender. They were shut down pretty quickly, and a few months later, we saw one of their guitars walk into the shop with somebody who thought he had a real Zakk Wylde model (the giveaway on this one is the colors really didn’t match and the neck was finished, not raw) Les Paul. Poor guy was so bewildered he left it because he didn’t know what else to do with it.
That can give you some idea of how prevalent and widespread these things are. It is interesting to note that a counterfeit guitar is usually a playable instrument if the manufacturer actually wanted to make a brand and establish a company. They would probably sell on the market at about the price of a Mexican made Fender, which is a solid market niche. Often these come from China or a country that isn’t too interested in protecting international trademarks.
Here is the real important distinction, though. A counterfeit guitar will carry the brand name or logo of the guitar it is copying. In the case of some Paul Reed Smith counterfeits I’ve seen, the PRS logo is in a very different font from anything Paul Reed Smith has ever used. Don’t be fooled.
Buying a counterfeit guitar is always a loss.
Let’s turn to lawsuit guitars.
Lawsuit guitars are a different case. The most prominent recent example is the Paul Reed Smith Single Cut guitars. These debuted to the market to great fanfare for the elegant design and great playability. Gibson felt that the design of these was a little too close to that of the Les Paul, and in pressing the lawsuit, production halted.
Demand for these guitars and the value skyrocketed, as for several years it looked like they weren’t going to be made anymore, and the few that were on the market were going to be the rarest of the rare. Eventually, and I’m not sure exactly why, the suit was dropped. These suits are quite complicated and political, so I won’t speculate. Paul Reed Smith was now once again able to produce their single-cuts.
Another famous example of lawsuit guitars is the late 70’s Ibanez copies of the Les Paul and Rickenbacker Bass. I’ve held each of these in my hands on several occasions, and they are very much spot on a recreation of their subject. Ibanez was well-established with their own models at this time, and trying to make it into the American market a bit more than they already were. They already had the Iceman and other designs, so finding a unique shape wasn’t an issue for them. Japan at the time was a haven for copyright and trademark infringement, similar to what China is today, and when these went to market, Ibanez was promptly and rightly sued by Gibson and Rickenbacker. The models were soon pulled, and they are now something of a collector’s item. They are very good instruments. Ibanez obviously has gone on to good things in the marketplace, and all is well.
And to make the most important point here, Ibanez put their name on these instruments, it was the wrong company’s design, but their logo, they were not trying to pass theirs as a Gibson or a Rickenbacker, just their version of those instruments.
I hope this clarifies the difference between these two terms.
One other point of significance is if a guitar store buys a no-name guitar that resembles a Strat, a Gibson or anything else, or a counterfeit, they are not allowed to call it a “Strat copy.” Even that is seen as infringing on the brand trademark.