Several major figures in synthesizer history have lost control of their names over the years. Robert Moog sued in 1998 to get his name back on synths; that court battle, with Don Martin, was won in 2002 and allowed the modern Moog Music to supplant the former Big Briar. While Dave Smith never lost access to his personal name, he gave up his original brand name Sequential. Yamaha voluntarily surrendered the Sequential badge earlier this year.
But a new legal battle between Don Buchla and the current Buchla Electronic Musical Instruments is unprecedented on a number of levels.
First, Buchla (the brand) is unusually dependent on Don Buchla’s legacy. Don’s mug shot appears the moment you open the site, with a long history that talks about him (by first name) before ever mentioning the product. There are top-level menu items on the site for “History of Buchla” and “Don Buchla.” And the products themselves are high-end, boutique devices, sold with the expectation that you see a Buchla synth as worth more than someone else’s synth.
What you won’t see on that site is the fact that Don Buchla himself was terminated from the company that bears his name, back in April 2014. And you definitely won’t learn that Don Buchla is now suing this new company and its parent, Audio Supermarket Pty. Ltd. of Australia, for breach of contract.
And that legal battle seems likely to get very ugly indeed, uglier than anything I can recall in the time I’ve been covering electronic instruments.
The legal dramatics begin right in the introduction, including the suggestion that Don Buchla may have invented the synthesizer: “In 1962, he began work on one of the first, if not the first, music synthesizer: the Buchla Series 100.” (Emphasis theirs. But I can answer that: no, not the first.) It also describes his battle with cancer and calls his buyer tortuous and malicious. At one point, the complaint includes a claim by Don Buchla that the new buyers cause a stroke he suffered in 2014.
But moving as those arguments may be, they’re not the substance of the case. Let’s cut to the material specifics. The suit claims:
Buchla allegedly was pressure into unfair terms. Don Buchla signed a Memorandum of Understanding – not yet an explicit purchase agreement – in November 2011, according to the suit. At this point, he didn’t yet have legal counsel. Those same terms did find their way into an Asset Purchase Agreement and an Employment Agreement (after which Don Buchla did engage counsel).
The new owners allegedly breached the purchase terms. There are three parts to this: first, that the defendants paid under $110,000 instead of the $550,000 the suit says they were obligated to pay (regardless of sales); two, that they failed to pay a $30,000 closing cost; three, that they failed “to use reasonable business efforts to reach sales targets.” That final charge seems harder to prove, but the former two would seem to depend on a reasonably straightforward reading of the agreements. (Without seeing them, it’s impossible to know.)
The new owners allegedly fired Don Buchla without cause, breaching the employment terms. The plaintiffs allege that Don Buchla was terminated without cause.
The key to how the plaintiffs might try to defend this is in the complaint, in the “bad faith” portion:
“Defendants responded by intentionally seeking to trigger the reduction in purchase price tied to Mr. Buchla’s “unavailability” by, inter alia, making unreasonable, unfair, and/or impossible demands of Mr. Buchla under the Employment Agreement.”
In other words, it appears that both Buchla’s termination and the lower payment price will be connected by the defendants to his “unavailability” under the contract, just as the plaintiffs claim this was the fault of the new owners.
It also appears that sales targets at Buchla aren’t what the parties expected – and that the company may be unable to fill orders or pay suppliers: “On information and belief, Defendants lack sufficient funds to pay Mr. Buchla what he is owed under the Agreements. Defendants have not regularly paid their suppliers and have not fulfilled product orders that were made and paid for in full more than one year ago. ”
The suit names three defendants: Victoria, Australia-based Audio Supermarket Pty. Ltd., the Oregon-based Buchla Electronic Musical Instruments, LLC, and directors and managers of BEMI and Audio Supermarket in both Australia and the USA. The case’s jurisdictional statement, though, acknowledges that the case relies on business conducted in the US, and there’s reference in the document to attempts to shield assets of the Australian side of things by removing that company from the MOU.
The suit seeks to declare the contract void and return Buchla’s name, intellectual property, assets, and even purchase orders to Don Buchla, plus damages – or provide $500,000 in damages or more for breach of contract.
Whatever the claim, it’s unclear whether the Buchla brand will survive the legal proceedings here.
You can read the document filed on Justia:
Buchla v. Buchla Electronic Musical Instrument, LLC et al
Thanks to Tom Whitwell for bringing this to my attention. He also got the attention of FACT.
If we get any additional information, or analysis by someone familiar with this kind of case, I’ll provide an update.
Without any real first-hand knowledge of the situation, it’s still hard to imagine the Buchla company continuing to operate successfully under the shadow of this lawsuit – least of all if the document’s allegations are true, and it was already unable to pay suppliers or fill orders. In the meantime, it seems that makers of less-expensive modular instruments inspired by Buchla’s designs will continue to flourish.
For their part, you can read some mention of inability to ship in threads like this one from Muff Wiggler — this one sent to us by Chris Randall (via Twitter) from all the way back in 2013, in a trend that has according to reader reports continued:
Just another update..
As we previously stated, we will honor EVERY Order that has been placed within the 200e Celebration.
Our existing stock prior to the 200e Celebration was exhausted within a few short hours, so we are busy building more stock to fulfill ALL orders.
This will take some time, so please be patient with us. help
Our team in charge of administering your 200e orders are having a breakdown d’oh! , but Laurie and the team are doing all they can and we will get to you all with replies.
We are NOT trying to annoy or upset anyone. We love you all love
We are doing EVERYTHING WE CAN to please our loyal community and we are working feverishly to get YOUR 200e orders, Easel’s and systems delivered.
We are dealing with all developments in a way to move forward quickly and for the benefit of you and BEMI together. We want YOU to get your 200e orders, YOUR Easel’s and YOUR systems, and we want to develop new and exciting instruments and products.
Since the BEMI beginning, we have had so many obstacles to overcome, and we continue to surge hihi ahead. One day we will write a book and you can read all about it… very frustrating
We just want to give you the message that EVERYTHING has a reason, and BEMI is trying to do everything in the correct manner for the sake of our mutual passion – the legacy and future of Buchla products and its innovation.
If we are delayed on a particular product or products, there is a legitimate reason or reasons. We will share EVERYTHING with you that we can, and in turn, we must gain your trust along the way, so you can trust that we are doing all we can.
So apologies for the long post. We assure you your orders will be fulfilled for all your 200e and your Easel’s, and we will update you in the next week on both situations.
We understand we can not please everyone, and people will still have their theories of BEMI being the Evil Dark side evil and plotting to make things difficult, however all we can say is that we will work harder to prove these wrong.
Faithfully and in appreciation, the Buchla team
You can always contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com if you would like to chat and express your interests or concerns and we will do everything to make you feel warm and fuzzy. love