Gibson Les Paul Guitars With Less Ebony

August 6, 2012

A Gibson Les Paul Electric Guitar

Among the guitars that I own is a Gibson Les Paul 2004 Standard Limited Edition with a 1950s neck, a transparent amber finish, and an ebony fretboard. According to the Department of Justice, I may have a problem with that fretboard. Anyone wanna buy an electric guitar cheap - no questions asked?  I'm more than happy to strum a Fender or my beloved G&L.

The Ebony Ban

Madagascar Ebony is a slow-growing tree species threatened by over-exploitation, which has significantly reduced Madagascar's forest cover. Since 2006, harvesting ebony and exporting it in unfinished form from Madagascar has been banned.  Since May 2008, it has been illegal under the Lacey Act to import into the United States plants and plant products (including wood) that have been harvested and exported in violation of the laws of another country.

When manufacturing its guitars, the Gibson Guitar Corp. used sawn boards of Madagascar ebony in the form of "fingerboard blanks." Notwithstanding the 2006 ban, Gibson's Madagascar supplier continued to obtain the ebony fingerboard blanks from an exporter in Madagascar.

The 2008 Trip

In June 2008, a Gibson employee joined a non-profit-organization's sponsored trip to Madagascar, where participants were told that since 2006, Madagascar had bannedthe harvest of ebony and the export of any ebony products that were not in finished form. The ebony fingerboard blanks used by Gibson were considered unfinished and illegal for export.  Among the facilities visited on this trip was that of Gibson's Madagascar ebony exporter, and it was noted that the wood at the facility was under seizure at that time and could not be moved.

Upon returning from Madagascar, the Gibson employee conveyed the information about the ebony law to superiors and others at Gibson, but the disclosures were not further investigated or acted upon - and Gibson received four shipments of Madagascar ebony fingerboard blanks from its supplier between October 2008 and September 2009.


On August 6, 2012, Gibson entered into a criminal enforcement agreement with the United States resolving allegations that the company violated the Lacey Act by illegally purchasing and importing ebony wood from Madagascar and rosewood and ebony from India.

The criminal enforcement agreement defers criminal prosecution for Lacey Act violations and requires Gibson to pay a $300,000 penalty and a $50,000 community service payment to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to promote the conservation, identification and propagation of protected tree species used in the musical instrument industry and the forests where those species are found.   Also, Gibson will implement a compliance program.  In related civil forfeiture actions, Gibson withdrew its claims to the wood seized in the course of the criminal investigation, including some $261,844 in invoiced shipments of Madagascar ebony.

Bill Singers Comment

A number of commentators on the original iteration of this story have raised many excellent points about the motivation behind the government's investigation and prosecution of Gibson.  As such, make sure to read Gibson's press release: Gov't says wood is illegal if U.S. workers produce it (August 25, 2011), which states in relevant part:

Gov't says wood is illegal if U.S. workers produce it
Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Justice department bullies Gibson without filing charges

The Federal Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. has suggested that the use of wood from India that is not finished by Indian workers is illegal, not because of U.S. law, but because it is the Justice Department's interpretation of a law in India. (If the same wood from the same tree was finished by Indian workers, the material would be legal.) This action was taken without the support and consent of the government in India.

On August 24, 2011, around 8:45 a.m. CDT, agents for the federal government executed four search warrants on Gibson's facilities in Nashville and Memphis and seized several pallets of wood, electronic files and guitars. Gibson had to cease its manufacturing operations and send workers home for the day, while armed agents executed the search warrants. Gibson has fully cooperated with the execution of the search warrants.

• Raid shut down Gibson factories and cost company money
This is the second time that federal agents have raided Gibson facilities and disrupted production - this time causing lost productivity and sales.

• Wood seized was verified as FSC® Controlled Wood according to the Forest Stewardship Council™ (FSC®) Controlled Wood requirements
The wood the Government seized on August 24 is from a Forest Stewardship Council™ certified supplier and was received as FSC® Controlled Wood, meaning that the wood conforms with the FSC Controlled Wood Standards of the Forest Stewardship Council™, which is an industry-recognized and independent, not-for-profit organization established to promote responsible management of the world's forests. FSC® Controlled Wood standards require, among other things, that the wood not be illegally harvested and not be harvested in violation of traditional and civil rights. See for more information. Gibson has a long history of supporting sustainable and responsible sources of wood and has worked diligently with entities such as the Rainforest Alliance and Greenpeace to secure FSC® certified supplies. The wood seized on August 24 was evaluated to FSC® Chain of Custody Standards.

• Nearly two years later, no charges have been filed
In 2009, more than a dozen agents with automatic weapons invaded the Gibson factory in Nashville. The Government seized guitars and a substantial amount of ebony fingerboard blanks from Madagascar. To date, 1 year and 9 months later, criminal charges have NOT been filed, yet the Government still holds Gibson's property. Gibson has obtained sworn statements and documents from the Madagascar government and these materials, which have been filed in federal court, show that the wood seized in 2009 was legally exported under Madagascar law and that no law has been violated. Gibson is attempting to have its property returned in a civil proceeding that is pending in federal court.

The Justice Department has asked the judge to stop the court case indefinitely.

• Information sought in raid was already made available

Since 2009, Gibson has fully cooperated with the Government's investigation of wood and has provided substantial documentation regarding Gibson's wood-buying activities over the years. Yet, the Federal Government raided Gibson's facilities on August 24, 2011, without warning or communication of any kind. Had the Government simply communicated with Gibson, Gibson would have cooperated without having to stop its production and send workers home.

• Not about illegal logging, not about conservation, not about the environment

The U.S. Lacey Act does not directly address conservation issues but is about obeying all laws of the countries from which wood products are procured. This law reads that you are guilty if you did not observe a law even though you had no knowledge of that law in a foreign country. The U.S. Lacey Act is only applicable when a foreign law has been violated.

• Gibson is innocent and will fight to protect its rights

Gibson has complied with foreign laws and believes it is innocent of ANY wrong doing. We will fight aggressively to prove our innocence.

For more information, please contact:

Henry E. Juszkiewicz

c/o Gibson Guitar Corp.

309 Plus Park Blvd.

Nashville, TN 37217

(615) 871-4500 Extension 2405 . . .