This appeared in the latest Economist:
Guitars and the law
Guns N' Rosewood
Confusing environmental rules harm more than guitarmakers
Sep 3rd 2011 | NASHVILLE | from the print edition
MAYBELLE CARTER strummed one with a smile. Slash, the lead guitarist of Guns N' Roses, thrashed one with a snarl. One would be hard-pressed to find two carbon-based life forms more different than Carter and Slash (pictured), but they both loved Gibson guitars, as do thousands of amateur bards. So it struck a jarring chord when federal agents raided Gibson's factories in Nashville on August 24th.
Agents barged in and shut down production. They were hunting for ebony and rosewood which the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) alleges was imported from India in violation of the Lacey Act, a 1900 law originally designed to protect fauna from poachers. This law has metastasised: it now requires Americans, in essence, to abide by every plant and wildlife regulation set by any country on Earth. Not having heard of an obscure foreign rule is no defence. Violators face fines or even jail. FWS claims the ebony sent from India was mislabelled, and that Indian law forbids the export of unfinished ebony and rosewood. Gibson denies wrongdoing.
This is the second time in two years that federal agents have raided Gibson. In November 2009 they seized guitars and ebony which they say may have been illegally imported from Madagascar, an island of rainforests. Gibson has filed sworn statements and documents from Madagascar's government which, it claims, show the wood's importation was legal. Nearly two years later, no charges have been filed, but the government still has Gibson's wood. Gibson has sued to recover it.
Guitarists now worry that every time they cross a state border with their instrument, they will have to carry sheaves of documents proving that every part of it was legally sourced. Edward Grace, the deputy chief of the FWS's office of law enforcement, says this fear is misplaced: "As a matter of longstanding practice," he says, "investigators focus not on unknowing end consumers but on knowing actors transacting in larger volumes of product." But Americans have been jailed for such things as importing lobsters in plastic bags rather than cardboard boxes, in violation of a Honduran rule that Honduras no longer enforces. Small wonder pluckers are nervous.