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

from the ex-wife's-claim-no-less-ridiculous-than-descendants'-claims-of-70-years dept

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.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    icon
    silverscarcat (profile), Mar 11th, 2014 @ 9:48am

    But, you know...

    If this does pass with the courts, couldn't one use it to get copyright law to terminate at the end of a person's life?

    ...

    Oh, who the hell am I kidding? The people of the Copyfraud Alliance want their cake and eat it at the same time.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    icon
    BentFranklin (profile), Mar 11th, 2014 @ 9:56am

    "This raises a question: if his ex-wife has no right to profit from Smokey's songs, why should Smokey's descendants?"

    I was wondering why this article was interesting until I read that. Now it's fascinating!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Michael, Mar 11th, 2014 @ 11:53am

      Re: Interesting

      The only /logical/ reason I could see for this is if the argument is about a right of control versus a right to profit. In that case it would make sense that this specific right to control could only be exercised by the creator and would apply with their current obligations instead of those determined at prior determinations of asset division.

      However I don't agree that the intent of copyright / patents is being served; providing incentive to 'artisans' and the spread of useful knowledge. Clearly the terms at the time of creation were sufficient and these later laws are simply a form of welfare and/or avoiding suit against the various monopoly groups (RIAA/MPAA etc) by misdirecting the issue.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    icon
    Violynne (profile), Mar 11th, 2014 @ 12:00pm

    Who the hell is "Smokey Robinson"?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      PRMan, Mar 11th, 2014 @ 12:09pm

      Re:

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      John Fenderson (profile), Mar 11th, 2014 @ 1:08pm

      Re:

      Ahh, to be young!

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      jupiterkansas (profile), Mar 11th, 2014 @ 1:10pm

      Re:

      Every time a musician is mentioned on Techdirt, someone pipes up that they're irrelevant simply because they've never heard of them (or if they have, that their best work is far behind them).

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        icon
        John Fenderson (profile), Mar 11th, 2014 @ 3:54pm

        Re: Re:

        (I'm not sure this is what Violynne was doing, so this comment isn't about her...)

        You're right, and it's hilarious in it's laziness and ineptness. Instead of arguing against whatever stance the artist has taken (or triggered), they really seem to believe that the personal attack (dismissing the artist as irrelevant) is convincing anyone. On the other hand, we're talking about trolls, and that's SOP with trolls.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        icon
        Violynne (profile), Mar 12th, 2014 @ 3:42am

        Re: Re:

        You do realize my comment was sarcastic, right?

        The point of my comment was "No one's going to care, so he's wasting his time."

        When it comes to spending in Hollywood, it's going to be hard pressed for me to believe his music will be in a future movie anytime soon.

        This news just highlights he's expecting the entitled "pay up or shut up" revenue if anyone comes knocking.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      art guerrilla (profile), Mar 11th, 2014 @ 1:13pm

      Re:

      so young, so innocent, so deprived...
      only one of the best musicians/singers/songwriters of his generation, that's all...
      (approximately 10 times more talented than 90% of the current generation of musicians... a better pharrell williams before pharrell was a glint in his daddy's eyes...)

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 11th, 2014 @ 12:08pm

    Rights...nah, divorce

    Divorce: Reduce costs and emotional distress - just go give half your stuff to somebody you already hate.

    Smokey ain't takin' this approach for any principle other than f@#% you, b!#&%.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 11th, 2014 @ 12:23pm

    "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."

    I think you mean post-1978, right?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    icon
    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Mar 11th, 2014 @ 12:27pm

    Why is this even a case?

    If Smoky Robinson went out and sold his car today, he wouldn't have to give 50% to his ex-wife. He didn't own the copyright at the time of the divorce, why should he have to give her half of it now?

    Or is there a part of divorce law that forces him to give her 50% of all the assets he gets until the end of his life?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      art guerrilla (profile), Mar 11th, 2014 @ 1:14pm

      Re: Why is this even a case?

      good point...

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      John Fenderson (profile), Mar 11th, 2014 @ 3:58pm

      Re: Why is this even a case?

      "is there a part of divorce law that forces him to give her 50% of all the assets he gets until the end of his life?"

      I don't have the first clue about divorce law in California. The state I got divorced in isn't even a community property state.

      However, I can engage in pure speculation that in some circumstances a case could be made for this. If the spouse if half owner in everything acquired during the marriage, then she's half owner in revenue-producing property as well, and could be due half of the income it produces.

      Also, we don't know what's in the divorce decree. A divorce decree can contain all kinds of stipulations that are not required by law.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      btrussell (profile), Mar 13th, 2014 @ 3:58am

      Re: Why is this even a case?

      Who/what inspired him to create? Copyright or his ex-wife?

      Nagging doesn't count as inspiration.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    anon, Mar 11th, 2014 @ 12:35pm

    Wait a minute here

    These are songs form 1978 and we all know that artists are only making pennies on their albums these days what with all the piracy and all, why would he want the copyright on something that the music industry is saying is not making anything but a few dollars a year.
    Come on someone is pulling the wool over someones eyes here...either they are making money or they are not, the cant argue one case saying they are and another saying they are not, that is just lies and bad for anyone that wants to support artists

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    icon
    jupiterkansas (profile), Mar 11th, 2014 @ 1:11pm

    More proof that these laws only exist to keep lawyers in business.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 11th, 2014 @ 3:09pm

    this one is a stretch. Divorce law in California entitles both parties to exatly half of the community assets at the time of divorce.
    Now there is a somewhat interesting question as to if the right to reclaim copyrights was included or not, i would expect not, as he does not need to exercise the rights, and only he can exercise the rights at this time.

    the question of his heirs making money is really pretty stupid, drop it.

    now a better question is if the original artist is dead, can his/her heir(s) reclaim the copy right or not.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    icon
    mr. sim (profile), Mar 11th, 2014 @ 3:28pm

    if this ruling goes in Smokey's favor then it's only a matter of time before the sony bono copyright act is ruled unconstitutional since it expands copyright beyond the life of the only party who legally has claim to the copyright.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    icon
    LAB (profile), Mar 11th, 2014 @ 7:59pm

    I am not familiar with California divorce law but Robinson's argument about regaining rights seems spot on.
    "Smokey Robinson claiming his ex-wife isn't entitled to profits (but presumably his heirs are) -- is twisting the law to assert control."
    I don't think so. I he were to pass and they were still married, then she would have rights as well as his children. With the dissolution of marriage, she loses those rights.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      tracyanne, Mar 12th, 2014 @ 3:20pm

      Re: LAB

      Sorry OT

      By pass I assume you mean die, and not decline from bidding in a game of Gin Rummy.

      I swear, I'm going to leave instructions that anyone who refers to my death as passing, be executed on the spot.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Pragmatic, Mar 14th, 2014 @ 4:15am

      Re:

      @ LAB,

      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?

      This is what happens when you try to treat creative output as property. It was never meant to be treated in that way and attempting to do so is unconstitutional. That's why Tim is actually right.

      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.

      A minor quibble - it's the difference between freehold and leasehold. He's still right - constitutionally, creative output isn't property and shouldn't be treated that way. And the Constitution trumps all other laws. Whether or not the way people think about it has changed is irrelevant.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    nonie, May 14th, 2014 @ 8:00pm

    law suit

    Smokey should have no problem giving claudette money.Even though he wrote a lot of the music Claudette Ronnie Bobby Pete helped make the group popular. Their families. deserve some of the money as well. Went to school with them. Sue Claudette n others families should too. How much money does he need

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, May 15th, 2014 @ 5:01am

      Re: law suit

      How much does she need. She has already received over 32 million dollars since there divorce. He needs to retire after all these years whole his family all sat on there butts while he took care of all of them. Thats real real sad to me. I hope the tabled turn in your behalf Smokey you deserve the fruits of your labor.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 15th, 2014 @ 5:56am

    She need to leave him alone and get a job or a life of her own.she sounds like she is still carrying a torch for him. Isn't he married mow. This man has worked hard all his life bringing people joy. He deserves to his own body of work that he was blessed with not her. My advice be thankful for all the millions you have already and probably still get from him and let him have what he and I repeat what he created not you. Aren't you scared of God my dear. Shame shame on you. It looks like greed to me.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Madame A, May 24th, 2015 @ 8:58am

    Their is much dirt under the Music Carpet...

    Smokey when joined with Berry was ruthless, that is why he quit his Vice President Motown position, Smoke could not not be cutting hard working people out of their money. The two other supremes broke, Marvelettes, broke...Marvin was broke, until the recent lawsuit for plagarism. That work for hire...just means you playor sing the song and get paid, then that's it. No royalties, No copyright, No money entitlement. Berry Gordy is a Selfish Bastard! No one back in the day went against Berry Gordy or you were out the door and on the floor!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Madame A, May 24th, 2015 @ 9:05am

    Motown is Not for the Clowns....

    Stevie Wonder's (who was 11 at the time) Mother saw how Berry Gordy was taking advantage of all the Motown singers, composers and musicans and hired lawyers. To protect here son's rights to own his songs or he would be broke today. The other Miracles, one a family member did not make much money either. Berry Gordy, saw dollar signs when he took William C. Robinson under his wing, and THAT IS A FACT!

    Berry Gordy rip off a lot of people who were entitled to keep their music copyrights. Marvin Tarplin, Rose Ella Jones (smokes sister) wrote many of the old songs, that Smokey sing today! Smoke took care of her all her life though, to show he is a good guy!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Madame A, May 24th, 2015 @ 9:11am

    Diana Rosss was The Smart Supreme...

    Diana Ross, who had Berry's child back in the day, left just in time to keep her rights. She was just a good business woman, the other Supremes, did not fair out that well. The back up musicians on all these Motown Hits... worked for hire and never got credit or any entitlements for anything...just play and paid. And belive it, Berry Gordy was tight about paying the musicans fairly. He was A Prick!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
Advertisement
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Chat
Techdirt Reading List
Advertisement
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Support Techdirt - Get Great Stuff!

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.