Instrument maker to defend trademarks in court.

Gibson Guitars, manufacturer of the industry standard Les Paul model, is now aggressively defending its trademark guitar and others by turning to the federal courts.

In late May, Nashville-based Gibson filed suit in the Middle District of Tennessee against Japanese guitar maker Tokai, claiming its "Love Rock" model is a Les Paul look-alike. Gibson also claims that other models in Tokai's line steal designs of its copyrighted guitars, court records show.

Gibson contends it learned that Tokai had a deal with an American distributor and a handful of dealers. It also has tried to stop Tokai's sales of knockoffs in Japan, Canada and Europe since 2000.

The Gibson suit also names as defendants New Jersey-based Godlyke Distributing Inc., The Guitar Cellar of Lexington, Ky. and Musictoyz.com of Maine. Additionally, Gibson is still waging a long-running legal battle with Paul Reed Smith, a highly regarded guitar manufacturer based in Stevensville, Md.

Tokai, Godlyke or the Guitar Cellar could not be reached for comment. Ted Rausch of Musictoyz declined to answer questions about the suit.

Gibson's rivals acknowledge that the solid-body Les Paul electric guitar unveiled in 1952 was transcendent. It is "the flagship of flagships," said one. For decades, other manufacturers have offered instruments that have veered close to being outright copies.

The Les Paul was not manufactured by Gibson during most of the 1960s, and the company did not apply for trademark registration until 1987. By then, other manufacturers were using the shape that defined the Les Paul look.

In 2000, Paul Reed Smith introduced the Singlecut, a model it says it created to satisfy dealers who loved the Les Paul but did not like Gibson. U.S. District Court Judge William J. Haynes granted summary judgment to Gibson earlier this year. Paul Reed Smith has indicated it might appeal, but the case is headed for a scheduled July trial to determine damages.

Gibson charges in its Paul Reed Smith and Tokai lawsuits that the defendants manufacture instruments that unlawfully mimic the distinctive features and " trade dress" of guitars such as the Les Paul.

The dispute centers on the legal question of whether a customer is confused by the alleged knockoff. Haynes noted that at first glance, several experienced buyers initially mistook the Singlecut for the Les Paul.


AP LogoCopyright 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.