“Please Papa can I go. Down to Richmond to the traveling show. Please Papa don’t you say I can’t. I just want to see the elephant.” See The Elephant, music and lyrics by James McMurtry.
I’m not a lucky person. I’ve never won the lottery, not even a five-dollar scratch-off. And when it comes to art, I’d have better luck at a raffle drawing than drawing an object, portrait, or thing. But this past weekend, I found myself in front of a booth run by Martin Guitar being invited to enter a contest that would require both luck and artistic talent to win.
For those not familiar with the hierarchy of guitar-dom, C.F. Martin & Co. of Nazareth, PA. occupies the pinnacle of the acoustic guitar realm. (For those really not familiar with these six and 12 string instruments, “acoustics” are the hollow wooden ones).
The contest seemed simple—it was part of Martin’s “Draw an Elephant, Save an Elephant” campaign directed to raising awareness for the plight of that endangered species. The connection between elephants and guitars seemed a bit obscure, considering that the pachyderms are more likely to stomp on a guitar than to fingerpick one. But who was I to scoff at a worthy cause? Besides, I’ve been tuned-in to the evils and perils of poaching elephants in the jungle ever since watching Tarzan and the Ivory Hunters at a 25-cent Saturday matinee back in the day. As it turns out, Martin Guitar has a long history of environmental stewardship. Years ago, Martin Guitar substituted a synthetic for the ivory used on its instruments.
To enter this contest, #Save Elephant, all you had to do was draw an elephant and you were eligible to win a prize. Pretty simple. But to me, it was daunting. I had been kicked out of remedial art class in elementary school. So my “flight” instincts kicked-in.
But the folks running Martin’s booth were friendly, and my son, a graphic designer, egged me on. I decided to give it a shot. After all, we were at The Newport Folk Festival, we’d been enjoying energetic and passionate performances across three stages strategically placed around an old fortress that once protected Rhode Island from pirates and non-musical British invasions. The sun shone and spirits were high. And I was surrounded by an array of gorgeous C.F. Martin guitars—the same brand made by this family company since 1833 and played by legends and musical greats for over a century. Hank Williams strummed a Martin model D-28 that Neil Young now owns and plays in concert. Woody Guthrie owned several Martins. And Bob Dylan played a Martin guitar before famously picking up an electric Fender Stratocaster at Newport 50 years ago this past week, shattering the folk music world, prompting boos from the crowd, and changing popular music forever. (A 50th anniversary tribute to this seminal moment from 1965 capped this year’s Newport weekend. The infamous Fender was on hand, strummed by Taylor Goldsmith, a member of the indie-folk band Dawes, leading a soaring version of Maggie’s Farm, backed by keyboard legend Al Kooper who played the same organ lines when Dylan performed that song five decades earlier.)
Martin was offering one prize per hour, and for all I knew, a guitar could have been one of them. So rather than succumb to my inhibitions and phobias, I reached for a pen and began drawing my elephant. I won’t say it was elegant. I won’t say is was attractive. But my drawing definitely captures a certain elephantine essence. I eschewed cubism and abstract expressionism for my own brand of post-modern realism, that is to say, you’d have no trouble recognizing the trunk, ears, tusks, and stumpy legs of my elephant masterpiece.
I signed my work, filled out the entry information, and went back to enjoying music and Newport Harbor breeze.
About an hour later, my cell phone rang. It was a call from “Allentown, PA.” Not knowing anyone from that part of the Keystone State, and being in the middle of a migration from one festival stage to the next, I almost declined the call. But instinct urged me to answer. “This is Martin Guitars. You’re our twelve-o’clock winner,” the caller said. I froze, disrupting the stampede of festival foot traffic, then I headed to the Martin Guitar booth. There I met Skip, who congratulated me and showed me a table piled with prizes. No, the guitars weren’t part of the contest. But I got to select a t-shirt with the original Martin logo and lettering, direct from the company archives:
Admiring the logo, I mentioned that when I’m not attending music festivals and concerts, I’m a trademark lawyer, and told him about my interest in brands and their histories. We then discussed, how, as with many brands, the Martin logo and iconography have evolved. But the essence of Martin’s brand identity has remained constant through the use of the C.F. Martin name, and through continuous use of Martin’s simple, iconic, headstock design:
I then learned from Skip that Martin Guitar was no stranger to intellectual property battles. A few years ago, on a visit to China, the company’s sixth-generation CEO, Chris Martin, discovered a collection of guitars that looked like genuine Martins, but were actually poorly made counterfeits. (Where a genuine Martin takes weeks to make by hand and may sell for several thousands of dollars, the Chinese company was mass-producing its ersatz Martins and selling them for a few hundred dollars each). It turned out that another company had registered Martin’s trademark in China, and was hijacking Martin’s reputation under the protection of Chinese law. (Michael Jordan faces similarly vexing copycats of his name and the “Jumpman” logo.)
Martin took action, registering the shape of its iconic headstock as a trademark in the United States Patent and Trademark Office:
(Registration No. 3,048,307). Martin also recruited Pennsylvania Senator Robert Casey to come to its aid. But the problems Martin faced in China stem from that country’s legal system. Chinese trademark law protect the first company to file for a mark in that country, even if that company is hijacking a brand that’s famous elsewhere in the world. And the law in China lets that company sue if the Real McCoy tries to sell its genuine goods in China.
Martin Guitar’s experience in China highlights the need for companies with strong U.S. brands and worldwide reputations to take preemptive action. Brand owners need to be proactive, aggressive, and creative. They should consider trademark registrations for key brand names, logos, and shapes in key countries, especially ones like China with reputations for counterfeiting. Like Martin Guitar, don’t just register words, look at products shapes and designs, which can also qualify for protection under trademark and patent law. And be vigilant. Otherwise, like the elephants that gave rise to this story, a famous trademark may be prone to poaching, which can weaken a brand, and in rare cases, drive it to the point of extinction. And the last thing anyone needs is another crude drawing from me trying to save another endangered species.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Sometimes the nicest thing to do with a guitar is just look at it.” Thom Yorke.