If you’re a guitarist like me, you recognize this classic guitar style at a glance:
It’s a Fender Stratocaster, of course. The axe used by countless rock-and-roll gods, from Jimi Henrix to Eric Clapton. It’s iconic. It defined a brand and even a way of life.
Yet have you ever noticed how many companies make a “Stratocaster” guitar? Any company — heck, any luthier — worth their salt has a Strat option that, for the most part, has an identical body to a real Fender. But what about trademark laws? Why doesn’t Fender step in to stop these other guitar makers from using their design?
Designing the Stratocaster
The Stratocaster was unquestionably designed by Leo Fender in 1954. At the time, it was revolutionary, not resembling any other guitar on the market. It had a double cutaway and an instantly iconic look. The look was good enough — nay, perfect enough — that it has virtually remained unchanged for almost 70 years.
So why didn’t Fender step in and stop the copycats?
Well, they tried — and failed.
Trademarks and Fender’s Day in Court
Fender did in fact bring the matter to court in 2008. The company sued a number of their competitors for using several of their guitar and bass body shapes, including the Strat body. And they were clearly correct in stating that these other guitar makers 100 percent copied Fender’s designs.
So why did they lose their court case? To understand, you have to know a little bit about trademark law.
According to the USPTO, trademarks are “any word, phrase, symbol, design, or a combination of these things that identifies your goods or services. It’s how customers recognize you in the marketplace and distinguish you from your competitors.”
It’s the second sentence that is important here — it’s something (like a guitar body shape) that distinguishes you from the other guy.
Late to the Party
But here’s the rub: Fender waited 54 years before attempting to trademark the Stratocaster body. By that time, copycat Strats had been around for decades. Literally everybody had a Strat version of…