Smokey Robinson Says Copyright, not Community Property Law, Protects His Songs

     LOS ANGELES (CN) - 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.
     William Robinson Jr. sued Claudette Rogers Robinson in Federal Court. They are the only parties to the lawsuit.
     Robinson, 74, known as Smokey, was called America's greatest songwriter by no less than Bob Dylan. John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison also named him among their musical idols.
     The value of Robinson's songs is certainly in the millions of dollars, probably in the tens or hundreds of millions. He wrote or co-wrote more than two dozen Top 40 hits for his bands, The Miracles and The Temptations, and for other artists. His best known hits include "My Girl," "Tears of a Clown," "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "I Second That Emotion," "Going to a Go-Go," "The Tracks of My Tears," "Get Ready" and "The Way You Do the Things You Do."
     Robinson says in the lawsuit: "Defendant did not write any part of the musical compositions at issue. Plaintiff wrote them during the parties' marriage, which ended in 1986. As each composition was completed, plaintiff immediately assigned the original copyright in it to a music publisher."
     Smokey Robinson says he assigned copyrights for his songs "as he created them" to Jobete Music Co., which owns the catalogue to a tremendous number of Motown hits.
     "As the sole author of the musical compositions at issue, plaintiff has the exclusive right, but not the obligation, to terminate his assignments of the copyrights after a certain number of years," Robinson says in the complaint. "Plaintiff has properly issued termination notices for all currently eligible copyrights through December 31, 2013, and may continue to do so for the remaining copyrights.
     "Defendant claims that the copyrights plaintiff has recaptured and may continue to recapture upon termination of the assignments to the music publisher belong in part to her pursuant to California community property law. However, the 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."
     (Because both parties in this lawsuit are named Robinson, they sometimes will be referred to in this article by their first names.)
     Smokey and Claudette were married on Nov. 7, 1959, separated in May 1985 and the divorce became final, in California, in 1986. They had two children.
     Smokey says in his complaint: "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 principle s alone."
     Smokey Robinson married his second wife, Frances, in 2002. He began issuing notices of termination and recapture of his copyrights in 2012.
     Smokey says that his right to recapture the copyrights "arose immediately" upon his notifying Jobete that he was terminating its copyright assignment.
     "The first termination is effective this year; subsequent terminations continue to take effect on an ongoing basis. Plaintiff has not yet reassigned any of the copyrights 'recaptured' by him pursuant to Section 304 or Section 203 [of the 1976 Copyright Act], but he is actively negotiating for the sale of those rights," the complaint states.
     Songwriters may sell their catalogues for the purpose of immediate or accelerated payments of royalties that presumably will continue to accumulate long after their death, and/or to assign rights to an administrator for tax and estate reasons.
     Smokey says that when Claudette became aware of his search for a buyer and administrator of his recaptured copyrights, she sent the performing rights organization SESAC a letter "purporting to provide notice of defendant's alleged interests in plaintiff's 'recaptured' copyrights."
     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.
     That email, sent to Smokey's attorneys, "stated in pertinent part the following: '[O]nce title reverts to [Plaintiff] we will want to have assignments executed for filing with the copyright office so that the official records accurately reflect that [Defendant] owns 50% of the copyright.'" (Brackets as in complaint. The email is attached to the complaint as Exhibit B.)
     Smokey claims his wife's demands, and the demands of her counsel, are "incorrect and prejudicial," because Claudette "has no interest in any copyrighted musical composition authored by plaintiff the assignment of which was terminated pursuant to Section 304 or Section 203 [of the 1976 Copyright Act]. Defendant's notice could jeopardize plaintiff's ability to secure agreements for his currently vested termination rights and/or prospectively 'recaptured' copyrights, and compels him to seek declaratory relief by filing this action."
     Smokey Robinson seeks declaratory judgment "confirming his exclusive ownership of all copyrights, interests therein, and income therefrom ('Termination Rights') arising from his termination and recapture of his copyright assignments."
     He is represented by Patrick Hagan, at Fox Rothschild.
     Copyright is an arcane area of law, embracing as it does inherent rights of artists (if any), rights to republication, monopoly terms and limits, national and international laws and treaties, and intellectual property in general. It is allied to, but not identical with, patent and trademark law.
     The first U.S. copyright law, of 1790, expressly granted U.S. publishers the right to republish - i.e., steal - any publications of people who were not U.S. citizens or of material printed overseas.
     One century later, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens led an international campaign for better protection for authors. Twain testified to Congress that no other laborers were subjected to laws that made it legal for a stranger to steal the bread from his children's and grandchildren's mouths.
     Copyright ostensibly is limited in the public interest, so that useful inventions or publications cannot be locked up forever in the interest of a single person, family or interest. That was ostensibly the reason why copyright, to the extent it was issued at all, was limited, at first to 14 years, renewable once, then to 28 years, renewable once.
     These limits are sometimes known in the United States as Mickey Mouse laws, as the powerful Disney Corp. has persuaded Congress, more than once, to extend copyright protection each time its profits are threatened by the possibility that Mickey Mouse may enter the public domain.
     Twain's argument to Congress - that he could lose rights to his own books while still alive - helped change copyright terms to the life of the author plus 50 years.