Shapes of Things
A brief history of the
war over guitar designs.
BY CRAIG HAVIGHURST
One day in 2003, Atlanta-based music attorney Ron Bienstock was doing some routine background research for a guitar-making client when he came across something he found troubling: Fender Musical Instrument Corp. (FMIC) had applied to the US government for a trademark on the body shapes of three of its most famous and successful guitars:
the Stratocaster, the Telecaster, and the Precision bass.
For the previous 50 years, Fender had taken a mostly permissive attitude toward guitars built in
the Tele or Strat style. Of course, they fought outright counterfeits, but as any perusal of guitar
magazines from the ’70s and ’80s will attest, scores of makers were offering Strat and Tele dop-pelgangers—and there seemed to have been few cease-and-desist letters, few lawsuits. Why,
Bienstock wondered, would Fender suddenly be seeking trademarks for the body shapes? He
foresaw trouble for artisans like Tom Anderson Guitarworks or Roger Sadowsky of Brooklyn,
whose S-style and T-style guitars pay homage to the Strat and Tele, respectively, only with a master luthier’s touch.
Trademarking those shapes “would have turned the entire guitar industry on its head,” the bass-playing lawyer says. “You have companies that have been making guitars and basses in those
shapes since the late ’50s. There was a visceral reaction.” The worst-case scenario: a future in
which Fender could shut down models some builders had been making for 25 years or insist
on licensing fees. “None of these companies were saying these are shapes that they own,”
Bienstock adds. “They were just saying they are shapes [Fender] can’t stop me from making.”
So Bienstock, who has a long history of working on such cases, moved to block Fender’s hoped-for trademarks on behalf of a consortium of independent guitar builders. Thus began one of the
more contentious cases involving guitars and the courts in recent years—the latest flare-up in the
guitar universe’s strange, decades-long battle over body snatching. The decision came down last
year (more on that later), and some say it marked the final word on guitar mimicry. But litigation
is forever, so one never knows.