Gibson Guitar Co. has manufactured the legendary solid body, single-cutaway Les Paul guitar since 1952. It's the company's best-seller and retails at approximately $1,500. So the company was naturally upset when it thought a competitor was ripping off its famous design. But a federal appeals court ruled Sept. 12 that a brand of electric guitar with a similar cutaway shape doesn't infringe on the Gibson's trademark, reversing a lower court's judgment in favor of Gibson.
In 2000 Paul Reed Smith (PRS) Guitars created a "Singlecut" line of guitars that shared a similar functional shape with the Les Paul. In November 2002, Gibson sued PRS in the federal district court in Nashville, seeking injunctive relief for trademark infringement, counterfeiting, false designation of origin and dilution under the Lanham Act.
Gibson argued that the shape of the PRS guitar leads to marketplace confusion. In court documents, Gibson said that consumers standing on the far side of the room in a guitar store believe they see Gibson guitars and walk over to examine what they soon realize are PRS guitars.
However, the appeals court disagreed that this bordered on infringement, reasoning that "many, if not most consumer products will tend to appear like their competitors at a sufficient distance."
The court also added that such a theory would prevent competitors from creating even dissimilar products because, given enough spatial distance, most products appear similar to competitors' products.
"If a budding musician sees an individual he or she admires playing a PRS guitar, but believes it to be a Gibson guitar, the logical result would be that the budding musician would go out and purchase a Gibson guitar," the court wrote. "Gibson is helped, rather than harmed, by any such confusion."