The Dark Side Of Counterfeit Guitars

If you buy counterfeit guitars, you are supporting modern day slavery.  

Now that I have your attention. 

With all of the hullabaloo surrounding Gibson’s video threatening to sue “counterfeiters” and urging customers to #playauthentic, I think a major travesty is getting swept under the rug.  Sure, I’ve had a blast poking fun at Gibson for the video too, who hasn’t?  Unfortunately though, in the video, Mark Agnesi seemed to blur the line between “counterfeit” guitars, and guitars that are just heavily influenced by Gibson.  

There is a big difference between counterfeiting, and borrowing design ideas to create a product with your own brand.

I’ll start with definitions here.   The dictionary definition of counterfeit is “made in exact imitation of something valuable or important with the intention to deceive or defraud.”  This means a guitar that is labeled with a name brand that is not it’s own.  A guitar that is not made by the company who owns the brand, but is meant to be passed off as a genuine article.   These guitars usually come from China, and often referred to as “Chibsons.”  This is not just limited to copies of Gibson guitars, but pretty much every brand out there, but “Chibson” has become the common label to describe these guitars (I guess there’s Chenders?).

Guitar companies that make cheap guitars similar to the classics with their own brands on them (Agile, Firefly, Cort, Harley Benton, Dean, etc.,) are not counterfeiting.  They are not trying to convince customers they’re selling Gibsons or Fenders.  They are established businesses building guitars, and are exporting and importing according the laws of the countries involved.  Sure, some designs might be similar, but they are not counterfeiting.    

I’m not here to talk about Gibson’s lawsuit though.  I’m here to talk about real counterfeit guitars and real toll on humanity counterfeiting inflicts.  

Given the illegal nature of counterfeiting, it is a black market.  When there is a black market, it is inevitable that organized crime is prevalent.  When organized crime is involved, you get violence and slavery.  Yes, slavery.  It’s hard to imagine in the modern western world that slavery still exists, but current estimates are that 40+ million slaves exist in the world today.  Let that sink in.  

To frame it in a way that hopefully relates it to those of you in the western first world.  It’s no different than the illegal drug trade that is ran by violent cartels.  In fact, it’s probably the same cartels that are involved with counterfeit guitars, fake Rolex watches, human trafficking, and organ harvesting.  These people have to operate in the shadows since they can get in legal trouble.  When no one is watching and there is a couple bucks to be made, ethics go out the window.  They’re not only making guitars, they probably know nothing about guitars, they just know there is a little bit of money that can be made.  It’s just another avenue stream for them, no different from counterfeit purses.  This is just the nature of counterfeit items.

The factories making counterfeit products are going to have the most unsafe conditions.   This is true not just of counterfeit guitar manufacturers, but any counterfeit operation.  The workers could possibly be paying off a family debt, smuggled from around the world through coercion, their passports held ransom until debts are paid off.  It could be children kidnapped from their parents.  This is what modern day slavery looks like (find out more about it here).  

It may not even be the factory doing the final assembly of the guitar that is run by a cartel, but you can guarantee that it is at least involved somewhere in the sourcing of the raw materials.  There’s a reason those guitars are so cheap.  Even reputable companies run into trouble sourcing things like raw metals or woods.   The difference between a real company and a counterfeit manufacturer is the fact that a real company (hopefully) has ethics and a reputation.  We’re seeing in real time with Gibson how consumer backlash is swift and real, and that’s just over a video.  People are always looking to take down the big competitors, if you can find out a major company is using wood that was from a slash and burn operation in an endangered rainforest, there is someone chomping at the bit to make that information public. 

But why are counterfeit guitars being made?  Simply, because people are buying them.  Despite the fact that a lot of legitimate, affordable, quality instruments are being manufactured in China with different brand names on them, people want the “prestige” of Gibson or Fender or PRS or (insert brand here) logo on their guitar for minimal cost.  As I think we’ve learned with the War On Drugs here in America, laws don’t really matter when there is a demand and someone who can fill that demand.  If there is a demand for a product, someone will step in to supply it at any cost.  

There are really only two ways stop a black market; either the demand dries up, or it becomes more profitable to conduct legal transactions.   That’s why a lot of the organized crime in America switched to labor unions or legitimate brewing when prohibition ended.  Given that it probably won’t become legal for them to make counterfeit guitars, the only way we can fight this is to stop the demand.  Not to mention, as we’ve also learned with the War On Drugs, any steps lawmakers will come up with to curtail counterfeiting will be two steps behind the criminals.   It’s like a game of whack-a-mole. 

If there’s no demand for these guitars, they’ll stop making them.  It’s up to us guitar players to stop buying them.  

There are videos all over the Internet of people buying and demoing counterfeit guitars.   They usually tackle it from the angle of “let’s see if this guitar is any good.”  Most of the time, it’s a guitar that might look good on a wall, but either needs a ton of work to be playable, or not even fixable.  Very rarely will a good guitar be delivered, and this is if it even makes it through customs.  Some people look at it as “sticking it to the man,”  a big middle finger to a corporation.  Some look at it as a “life hack,” or how they got a “Gretsch White Falcon” for $150.  With no real company behind any of these products, who are you really going to complain to? 

I know it’s hard to look at something as beautiful as a guitar and equate it with human suffering, but that’s what black markets create. It’s no different than blood diamonds.

When it comes to this issue, I really don’t care about how Gibson or Fender feel about someone “ripping them off.”  Them losing a couple sales is nothing compared to the suffering going on throughout the world because someone was trying to look cool on stage with Gibson written on their headstock.  

If you don’t want blood on your hands, don’t buy counterfeit guitars.  







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