Copyright, Divorce Train Wrecks, Intellectual Property, Music

Smokey Robinson Sues Ex-Wife To Prevent Her From Claiming 50% Of His Recaptured Motown Hits

If there’s anything as labyrinthine as copyright law, it’s divorce law. Smokey Robinson, the composer of several Motown hits, is combining both.

Smokey Robinson sued his ex-wife, Claudette Rogers Robinson, seeking declaratory judgment that he may terminate and “recapture” the copyrights to all the songs he wrote during their marriage, and that she cannot claim interest in them under California community property law.

Robinson is reclaiming the rights to his pre-1978 songs from Jobete Music Co., something many artists are doing as copyright termination goes into effect. Robinson’s main problem, oddly, isn’t Jobete arguing that the songs were “work for hire,” but rather that his ex-wife (who he divorced in 1985) believes she should be entitled to 50% of whatever income these songs generate.

The Dec. 2, 2013 letter from counsel is attached to the complaint as Exhibit A. In it, Claudette claims 50 percent interest and demands 50 percent payment of the royalties and advances from all songs she claims as community property.

“She is entitled to half the publisher’s share and half the writer’s share,” Claudette’s counsel wrote in a Dec. 6 follow-up email.

Robinson’s filing points to a couple of aspects which would seem to lock Claudette Rogers-Robinson out of claiming half of his songs’ profits.

“[T]he 1976 Copyright Act expressly provides that these ‘recaptured’ copyrights belong to the author alone, which is plaintiff. Moreover, the 1976 Copyright Act precludes any transfer of those copyrights before the terminations themselves are effective. Thus, any transfer of such rights to any third party, whether defendant or a music publisher, was barred by the 1976 Copyright Act, and is therefore null and void.”

So, according to this claim, his ex-wife couldn’t have made any legal claim to the songs prior to rights termination, and seems to prevent her from doing so post-recapture. But another point Robinson raises seems to conflict with the assumptions of the current life+70 years copyright term.

“As a result of the divorce, all copyrights, contract, and/or royalty rights to the musical compositions created between November 7, 1959 and May 30, 1985 were purportedly divided between plaintiff and defendant as tenants-in-common. Defendant also received a monthly spousal support payment of substantial sums and significant real and personal property.”

However, Smokey says: “Defendant did not write any part of any of the musical compositions at issue; her interest was awarded on the basis of community property principles alone.”

By Smokey’s reasoning, any person who didn’t partake in the creative process of copyrighted works should be locked out of profiting from the works. This raises a question: if his ex-wife has no right to profit from Smokey’s songs, why should Smokey’s descendants?

The current copyright term allows heirs or other rights holders to exploit copyrighted material for 70 years after the death of the creator. Arguing that passing copyright control on to heirs is roughly comparable to an inheritance relies more on “community property principles” than copyright law. But intellectual property isn’t directly comparable to “real property” (land, houses, belongings, etc.). Real property has no set (but highly arbitrary) expiration date and isn’t subject to a “limited” period of protection.

Robinson asserts he “solely” owns these songs because he is the composer. Following this line of thinking, Robinson’s descendants should have no legal claim to profits from Robinson’s creations for 70 years after his death. If copyright law were deployed honestly, his “sole creator” claim would terminate his claim — and any of his heirs’ — at the time of his death. But it isn’t. And everyone involved — from the labels claiming pre-1978 songs were “work for hire” to Smokey Robinson claiming his ex-wife isn’t entitled to profits (but presumably his heirs are) — is twisting the law to assert control.

Smokey Robinson Sues Ex-Wife To Prevent Her From Claiming 50% Of His Recaptured Motown Hits

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