The Sunday Papers

Lawyering Up for the Gig: Three Famous Guitar Company Legal Battles

By Andy Perrin | November 10, 2017

Riff City Sunday Papers 11/12

When I think of gear news, the first things that come to mind are announcements of the latest and greatest items. NAMM Show material. Maybe a long-awaited signature model, a pedal that blows the doors off anything else we’ve seen, or an amp that harnesses that vintage vibe in a forward-thinking digital domain. My mind doesn’t exactly run to news of court battles. Yet, at intervals over the last few decades, legal battles between some of the most established and recognized brands have made front-page news. I’m thinking of names like the Fender Broadcaster, Tokai Springy Sound, and PRS Singlecut. Let me show you what I mean…

Gretsch’s Request: Fender’s Name Changes from Broadcaster to Telecaster

Today the Telecaster is a mainstay among guitar gear designs. Transcending both genres and generations, the Fender Telecaster has proved it’s here to stay. However, in its early years it was off to a rocky start: it had a name problem. Originally launched as the “Broadcaster” in 1950, by 1951 Gretsch put Fender on notice that the instrument’s name was too close to that of their Broadkaster drum kit. Apparently, these were more civilized days. Grestch didn’t lawyer up and hit em with a lawsuit, rather they requested the assurance that Fender would rethink the name and relaunch under a different title. In the interim, the solution at the Fender shop for a few months was to simply remove the model decal from the headstock, resulting in a very limited run of early 1951 guitars that came to be known as the “Nocaster” for their identity-less adornment. Later that year, Fender settled on the name “Telecaster” and have stuck with it ever since.

Big in Japan: Fender and Tokai’s Unexpected Tag Team

Arguably, the most court cases fought and won over infringement on instrument designs stemmed from the 1970s with a number of Japanese knock-offs. Some of the cases contented in and outside the court between the American companies and their Japanese counterparts pertained to specific design features, such as the 1977 case of Gibson vs. Ibanez over the shape of headstock designs or Fender and Gibson’s joint issue with Greco and Tokai for overly similar typography of logo fonts.Tokai Springy Sounds

Tokai, however, has to be top of the list for turning a near lawsuit into commercial success. It is no secret that in the 1970s to early 1980s the quality of Fender’s American lineup saw a dip. In this same era, the Japanese company Tokai rose to fame and success with high-quality replicas of Fender’s iconic classic, the Stratocaster (i.e, Tokai Springy Sound, Silverstar Sound, and Goldstar Sound). Things came to a head in 1977 when the two companies faced off over the issue, eventually cutting a deal that turned out to be fortuitous for both. Leveraging the success and quality of the Tokai knock-offs, Fender negotiated to have Tokai build and supply their made in Japan Stratocaster models so long as their own brand of guitars underwent a modest revision to their brand strategy, including a makeover to their headstock shape.Tokai Silverstar Sound

Gibson vs. Paul Reed Smith: Can You Spot a Singlecut When You See One?

One of the more recent and publicized legal battles over guitar designs took place in 2005 between American heavyweights Gibson and Paul Reed Smith. This issue: whether one could claim proprietary rights over the single cutaway electric guitar design. With the Les Paul sporting this look since 1952, the release of a Paul Reed Smith McCarty Singlecut in 2000 seems to have struck a little too close to home. Gibson alleged that the singlecut design that had become synonymous with the Les Paul was infringed upon and onlookers at a gig could unlikely tell the difference between the two designs. While a federal district court first awarded victory to Gibson in 2004, the decision was overturned the following year in a court of appeal. The highly publicized line of the court’s decision deemed that “only an idiot” would confuse the singlecut designs of the two companies!

Regardless of what you’re playing today—American made, MIJ, or some knock off in between—find time to turn it up and enjoy your #RiffCitySunday.