The True Stories Behind 6 Famous Gear "Lawsuits"

All violins look more or less the same. It’s the same story with saxophones, crash cymbals, upright pianos, and harmonicas. The musical instrument business is largely one of marketing variations on a standard form, and setting your brand apart from the competition often comes down to a matter of relatively minor differences in quality, appearances, or gadgetry.

But as mass production methods came to the musical instrument world and companies started designing instruments that were boldly different than the rest, it started to become a lot more obvious if, say, a Gibson Firebird had an offset waist just like the Fender Jazzmaster.

Common knowledge has it that the post–WWII era saw the rise of the music industry lawsuit, with imagined fierce competition between multiple brands trying to corner the burgeoning rock–’n’–roll–centric market.

But the fact of the matter is that some of the most famous musical instrument industry lawsuits were never lawsuits at all, and that some instruments that are uncanny copies of more famous instruments were never the subject of litigation. The stories of which lawsuits didn’t happen are just as intriguing as the ones that did.

The Broadcaster Saga

When the Leo Fender debuted his first production solidbody electric guitar in 1950, it was visionary on several counts. He used a bolt–on neck for mass producibility, a solid body to reduce feedback, a three–piece bridge for better intonation, and ash tonewood as a cheaper and lighter alternative to the maple, spruce, and rosewood used in electric archtops.

Fender called it the Broadcaster, and it was rightfully set to take off with working musicians who needed a loud, clean guitar on stage that they could count on gig after gig. But there was an issue.

On the other side of the country in Williamsburg, Brooklyn was Gretsch — one of the most prominent instrument companies in the world. Gretsch was currently marketing a drum kit called the Broadkaster, and it took no time at all for Gretsch to catch wind of Fender’s Broadcaster.

1950 Fender Broadcaster

Gretsch Broadkaster Drum Set

Rumor has it that Gretsch either threatened or raised a lawsuit against Fender. But what actually seems to be the case is that Gretsch, well, politely suggested that Fender change the guitar’s name, and Fender gladly complied.

There was a short period when these guitars were built with no model name on the headstock — dubbed the “Nocaster” in the vintage guitar market — but in 1951, the model was officially anointed the Telecaster.

Jazzmaster vs. Firebird

By the early ‘60s, electric guitars had picked up serious steam, leading to a heavy amount of competition in the market that titans like Fender and Gibson didn’t have to face when first hitting the scene in the ‘50s. Both company’s natural response to this phenomenon was to offer new designs, capitalizing on mid–century design tastes and rock 'n' roll’s love for eccentric stylings.

Fender released its Jazzmaster in 1958, and for the first time, Leo Fender filed a patent for one of his new guitars.

1964 Gibson Firebird V

The patent, as filed in December 1959, specifically covered offset waists — an idiosyncrasy unique to the Jazzmaster at the time. If granted, Fender could claim the design quirk as a proprietary feature. With that said, there’s not much evidence that the patent was ever granted.

In 1963, Gibson released the Firebird, a funky guitar that looked like a hallucinated version of Ted McCarty’s Explorer design. It was dreamt up by Ray Dietrich, who made his career designing cars for Lincoln and Packard.

The Firebird was unique in a few ways, most notably for its neck that ran all the way through the body. Then, there was offset waist. The story goes that Fender threatened to sue Gibson over the Firebird’s offset wait, forcing Gibson to halt production and redesign the guitar.

Again, it’s hard to tell if Fender had a patent on offset waists, but the second version of the Firebird did not feature one. Notably, Gibson replace the through–neck with a glue–on neck that made the guitar more durable and faster to produce.

Tony Bacon suggests in Flying V, Explorer, Firebird: An Odd–Shaped History of Gibson’s Weird Electric Guitars that Fender may have threatened a suit, but Gibson likely just used those rumors an excuse to pull the original Firebird and update its poor design.

1965 Gibson Firebird III

'60s Fender Jazzmaster

Ironically, the new Firebird released in 1965 looked even more like a Jazzmaster, with Gibson flipping the direction of the horns on the body. The fact that this became the de facto Firebird design for the rest of its run may be proof that Fender never really had much of an issue with Gibson’s design in the first place.

Gibson Fights for the Open Book

In the 1970s, Japanese manufacturers began producing guitars and basses that were on par, and sometimes at higher quality than, instruments made by America’s biggest brands. Famously, these were generally exact clones of the products offered by these brands.

Sometimes, like in Martin's case, that was the result of an outsourcing partnership. Sometimes it was just outright copycatting.

1970's Seville Ibanez Gibson Les Paul Clone

The instruments built in this era tend to be referred to as “lawsuit” guitars, based on the widely held misconception that these American companies went after Ibanez, Greco, Univox and others for cloning their designs. The truth is that most companies didn’t bother chasing down these companies on account of the difficulties of enforcing copyright overseas.

But in 1978, Gibson found a way to fight back and took the Elger Company to court in Philadelphia. Elger was initially a distributor who imported Japanese–made guitars from the Hoshino Gakki manufacturer to the states. This is where those Ibanez clones came from. Eventually, Hoshino bought Elger, which kept its base in Pennsylvania. That’s how Gibson was able to take Hoshino head on.

Gibson didn’t fight to stop Hoshino from producing or importing the clones, but simply from cloning the exact “open book” or “mustache” design of its headstocks. The idea was that consumers might confuse those Japanese imports with the real deal, and the judge ruled in Gibson’s favor.

Ibanez changed its headstock designs on otherwise faithful Gibson clones, and would go on to gain acclaim for its own designs in the 1980s.

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This gave companies like Fender and Martin leverage to file cease and desist letters with Japanese builders copying their headstock shapes or logo designs. But the truth is that Gibson v. Elger was the only actual lawsuit of the lawsuit era.

There are still plenty of amazing lawsuit instruments available that rival the quality of the designs built by American counterparts. And just like in the ‘70s, these so–called lawsuit guitars are still significantly cheaper than the real thing.

Gibson Sues Paul Reed Smith Over the Single Cut

It wasn't long after Paul Reed Smith launched in 1985 that it became one of the most successful premium guitar brands on the market. It had key early endorsers like Carlos Santana and Al Di Meola, and PRS was able to rope in former Gibson CEO Ted McCarty to do some design work by 1994.

The Maryland company has always meant business, and its savvy has been clear from the start. The company’s flying bird fretboard inlays are protected intellectual property, and its quilted maple tops in every color of the rainbow have become a visual hallmark, if not a legal trademark.

Gibson Les Paul Standard

PRS Ted McCarty Singlecut

PRS has always been open about the fact that it needs those distinct design elements to set itself apart from the competition, so it's ironic that it would get into hot water over a totally ubiquitous design choice. In 2000, when PRS introduced its own single cut model, Gibson sued.

Gibson claimed that people at a dark concert venue would confuse the PRS Single Cut with its Les Paul when seen played on a smokey stage. Their case was outright baffling, though, given the huge amount of exact Les Paul clones that had hit the market since the ‘70s. It seems like Gibson's impetus behind the suit was to try to edge out one of its few competitors in the high–end market.

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In 2004, a federal district court ruled in favor of Gibson and issued an injunction against Paul Reed Smith to stop production immediately. But the next year, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals overturned that decision on the grounds that by the time Gibson filed for a single cut trademark in 1987, the design was already ubiquitous and therefore generic.

Famously, court documents show that Gibson at one point stated that “only an idiot” would mistake a PRS Single Cut for a Les Paul. Perhaps not the best tactic for winning an intellectual property lawsuit.

Moog Takes Back Moog

Though Bob Moog is considered one of the most recognizable figures in the history of electronic instrument design, he was actually forced out of his own company in 1977 following mismanagement and poor sales.

As polysynths got big in the late ‘70s and digital took over in the ‘80s, the Moog company — with its insistence on producing analog monosynths, often at increasingly lower quality — would file bankruptcy in 1986 and close its doors in 1993.

Shortly after leaving the company, Bob Moog started the Big Briar company, building a reputation as one of the premiere manufacturers of theremins.

By the ‘90s, Moog would develop a series of lauded effect pedals that would go on to be known as Moogerfoogers. Big Briar’s low pass filter, ring modulator, 12–stage phaser, and analog delay pedals are still in production today under the Moog name.

Those Moogerfoogers’ popularity and increasing market share set the fire under Bob Moog to take back his own name for his company. There was just one problem.

In Cincinnati, a man by the name of Don Martin was running a company called Moog Music Cincinnati, building clones of the synth modules that launched Bob Moog’s career, and the Moog brand, decades earlier.

In 2002, Bob Moog took Don Martin to court to sue for the right to his name and won. It was a cut–and–dried case since Martin didn’t hold any actual right to the Moog name.

What followed was a renaissance for Moog. The company won back the hearts and minds of the synth community with its Moogerfooger pedals and Minimoog Voyager built by hand out of a factory in Asheville, North Carolina. Bob Moog passed in 2005 with the company on the rise. Recently, Moog Music Inc became an employee-owned company under the leadership of Michael Adams.

The company he rebuilt is arguably having the best years of its entire existence offering the beloved Phatty line of monosynths, a distinct lines of effects, and the affordable, semi–modular Mother 32 that delivers on the best promises of both vintage and contemporary synthesizer technology.

Behringer Gets Taken To Court Several Times Over

Behringer makes no bones about the fact that it clones other company's designs, capitalizing on cheap labor and parts costs in China and Southeast Asia to offer gear at door–busting low prices. Just recently, Behringer announced its clone of the Minimoog Model D at about a tenth of the price of Moog’s own recently announced reproduction.

Behringer has given the same treatment to products by Boss, Tech 21, Electro–Harmonix, Mackie, Line 6, and more. As mentioned in a comprehensive Create Digital Music post about Behringer’s lawsuits from 2009, the company even cloned Apple’s home page.

That Create Digital Music post gives the most comprehensive and digestible rundown of Behringer’s legal troubles out there. But to summarize:

In 1997, Mackie sued Behringer and its US distributor Samson over cloning its mixers. Mackie won the suit that year, but in 1999 a judge ruled that even though Behringer’s circuit boards were plagiarized, circuit board design is not covered by US copyright law. This basically freed Behringer to clone as it wished. When Mackie released its Onyx line a few years later, Behringer released its Xenyx mixers.

Mackie Onyx 1220i

Behringer Xenyx X1204

Savvy about the circuit board ruling, Roland took Behringer to court in 2005 for copying the look of its Boss pedals, claiming that Behringer was creating brand confusion. Behringer and Roland settled out of court, and the look of Behringer’s cheaper cloned pedals changed quickly. But the settlement didn’t stop Behringer from copying the look of Line 6’s pedals.

In the Gearslutz thread where founder Uli Behringer announced his plans to manufacture his Model D clone, he offered an alternate story about the Roland debacle and also provided some links to information about the Mackie suit (to a Gearslutz post defending Behringer) and a lawsuit with Peavey that Behringer won.

Cloning, though, has been the company’s bread and butter for much of its tenure as a topseller in the gear business.

BOSS GE-7 Graphic Equalizer

Updated Behringer EQ700 7-Band EQ

Behringer tends to offer two defenses of the cloning. In the post linking to information about the Peavey and Mackie suits, Behringer offers several other links to court briefs about other musical instrument companies infringing copyright. Behringer’s defense there seems to be, more or less, that everyone does it, so why shouldn’t Behringer.

Then in another post in that Gearslutz thread, Behringer offers his more common defense, that his company is trying to get cheap gear into the hands of working musicians.

Whether it’s that noble mission or a cold, calculated market play, Behringer is evidently proud to continue the practice.

Now this isn’t to say that Behringer exclusively clones other company’s products and sells them for less. The company’s new Deepmind 12 poly synth is an all original design, and a praised one to boot. Perhaps the success of something like this will nudge the company into relying more heavily on original designs, like Peavey’s evolution in the 1980s. Or maybe it won’t.

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