Smokey Robinson Points to U.S. Constitution in Fight With Ex-Wife Over Song Rights

Smokey Robinson Working on a 'Spanglish' Album

Smokey Robinson Working on a 'Spanglish' Album

The singer-songwriter argues that a federal copyright law preempts Claudette Robinson's claim of being entitled to a share of his big hits.

When U.S. lawmakers long ago decided to give authors the opportunity to terminate copyright grants to publishers, could they ever have imagined the novel dispute that is now playing out between legendary R&B singer Smokey Robinson and his ex-wife Claudette?

As previously covered, the famous singer/songwriter behind such hits as "My Girl" and "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" sued his former spouse in California federal court, seeking declaratory relief that once he terminated rights to songs, he wouldn't have to share the reclaimed rights with her. The defendant then filed counterclaims, pointing to a 1989 stipulated judgment made three years after their divorce that she says entitles to her to 50 percent of his compositions

At the heart of the dispute lies the intersection between federal copyright law and state family law, and for that reason in a motion to dismiss filed earlier this month, Smokey Robinson's lawyer said the counterclaims must fail.

"Federal law provides that Plaintiff – alone – recaptures all rights in the copyright notwithstanding any agreements to the contrary," states Smokey Robinson's motion. "On the other hand, Defendant asserts that under California community property and contract law, she is entitled to an undivided one-half interest in any recaptured copyrights Plaintiff may acquire in the future even though the marriage between Plaintiff and Defendant ended nearly 30 years ago."

Thus, in the songwriter's eyes, if there's an "irreconcilable conflict," then "federal law preempts state law" under the supremacy clause of the U.S. constitution.

Since the founding of the nation, there's always been a bit of tension between what the federal government is doing and the laws set up by the states, and except for an attempted divorce by southern states in the 1860s, everyone in the U.S. has managed to stay in a relationship together.

In answering the motion to dismiss on Thursday, Claudette Robinson's attorney says this time is no different, that her claims do no harm to legally recognized federal interests and present no preemption issues. Her legal papers place emphasis on the economic benefits of copyright, saying those are governed by state law. According to her answer, she's not attempting to interfere with his rights under the Copyright Act.

"Specifically, Ms. Robinson does not challenge Mr. Robinson’s exclusive right to decide whether to terminate prior grants," states the opposition. "Nor does she seek to interfere with whether, or under what terms, Mr. Robinson enters into new grants for (or sells) the Community Musical Compositions, now that they have been exposed to the market and can fetch the fair value Congress legislatively made available to him. Mr. Robinson must simply honor his separate, non-preempted state law contractual obligations with his former wife of 27 years."

In a footnote in her legal argument, she also makes the case that if copyright law somehow nullified contract law, it would lead to "absurd results," exampled by an author who assigns his copyright for a royalty, then assigns a royalty stream to a third party for a million dollars without disclosing termination intentions: "Under Mr. Robinson’s misguided theory, the author could then terminate the grant to the publisher and not only recapture the copyright, but also claim that the royalty stream he assigned in exchange for the million dollars should end. There is nothing in the statute or the legislative history suggesting Congress intended such a result."

Termination continues to be a hot topic in the entertainment industry, and the Supreme Court could soon be deciding one end of the spectrum of who gets those rights, but here's another case examining who is conferred the benefits of reclaiming past glories.