Copyright lawyers do not frequently discuss questions of family law, but an interesting case pending in California now provides reason to do so.
From 1957 to 1986, R&B singer Smokey Robinson was married to Claudette Robinson. During that time, Smokey wrote and assigned such hits as My Girl and You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me. In 1986, the couple divorced. Today, Smokey hopes to exercise his termination rights under federal copyright law to reclaim ownership over the songs. Claudette argues that because the songs were written during their marriage, they are community property under California state law and she is accordingly entitled to fifty per cent of the royalties. Furthermore she alleges that Smokey committed fraud by not disclosing this option during divorce proceedings. Smokey has sued Claudette in federal court seeking declaratory judgment that he may exercise his termination rights and that Claudette cannot claim any interest under California law.
The leading case on the relationship between federal copyright and state community property law, Rodrigue v Rodrique, 218 F.3d 432 (5th Cir. 2000), holds that an author-spouse maintains exclusive control over his works, but nevertheless the non-author-spouse is entitled to some share of the net economic benefits. Yet, this appears to stand in some conflict to an older Californian case, In re Marriage of Worth, 195 Cal. App. 3d 768 (1987), which found that spouses are joint owners of the works created during marriage. However, neither case discusses the relationship of termination rights to community state property. This raises the question of whether the state community property rules are pre-empted by virtue of the federal termination rights.
For an interesting discussion on the relationship between state community property law and copyright termination rights, see Llewellyn Gibbons, Termination of Copyright Transfers: The Author Spouse’s Last Laugh.