Smokey Robinson Settling With Ex-Wife Over Terminated Song Rights

Smokey Robinson 2010 - P 2014
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Smokey Robinson 2010 - P 2014

A closely-watched dispute between Smokey Robinson and his ex-wife Claudette Robinson over song rights is about to be resolved. On Thursday, the parties told a judge that they had reached a settlement in principle.

The battle involves termination rights under the 1976 Copyright Act. The legendary R&B singer, whose songs include "My Girl" and "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," is in the process of reclaiming rights to his works. But as he was doing this, the woman he was married to between 1957 and 1986, who says she put a hold on her own singing career to take care of the kids, asserted that she deserved a 50 percent share of what he recovered.

This led Smokey to file a lawsuit for declaratory relief with Claudette filing counterclaims.

In 1989, three years after the divorce, the parties entered into a stipulated judgment. At the time, the Robinsons don't appear to have addressed what would happen if the R&B singer regained rights to his compositions and made new licensing deals.

A quarter century later, with no real guidance on whether recaptured copyrights is community property or separate property under California family law, the two would be in court.

Claudette's attorney argued that the termination provision wasn't intended to "result in a windfall taking of copyright... from their former spouses," and that during the divorce, "Mr. Robinson gained an unfair advantage over Ms. Robinson by his concealment of the full scope of his termination right."

Smokey's lawyer argued that "recaptured copyrights belong to the author alone," that 1976 Copyright Act precludes any transfer of those copyrights before the terminations themselves are effective, and that his ex-wife's actions could "jeopardize" his ability to secure new agreements exploiting his newly recovered rights.

The dispute, with some talk about the conflict between federal copyright law and state family law and the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, gathered widespread attention in the music community — especially among artist reps.

These issues will probably have to be sorted by another court battle because the Robinsons are calling a truce. This settlement requires great brain-power, and so the parties are asking the judge for some time to arrive at the final deal.

The attorneys tell the judge, "Due to the complexity of the settlement issues involved in reducing the parties’ agreement to a long form, which issues include having to address different income streams, and possible future uses and disposition of the copyrights and income streams, the parties require additional time to finalize their settlement agreement. The agreement also requires input from family law and music transactional counsel, in addition to litigation counsel."

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