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Smokey Robinson Accused of Fraud by Ex-Wife in Messy Royalty Battle

Smokey Robinson is facing allegations of fraud in a messy court battle with ex-wife Claudette Rogers-Robinson over potential royalties from his storied music catalog. The contentious chain of events began when the 74-year-old Motown Records legend filed a copyright termination notice, which would permit him to reclaim his rights to his works from publishers. His fling followed the United States government’s enactment of the little noted termination provision of the Copyright Act of 1976. The terms of the provision allows artists who relinquished their rights without much bargaining power the opportunity right to reclaim ownership of their recordings.

According to a 2011 article in the New York Times : When the copyright law was revised in the mid-1970s, musicians, like creators of other works of art, were granted “termination nights,” which allow them to regain control of their work after 35 years.

Robinson then fled a lawsuit in March seeking a declaratory judgment that his ex-wife could not share in his reclaimed rights.

This is where things get nasty…

Rogers-Robinson, 71, has fired back and asserts in her counterclaim that she’s not only is entitled to 50% of Robinson’s compositions, but that her ex-husband breached fiduciary duty, committed fraud and anticipatorily breached the terms of their 1989 stipulated judgment that stemmed from their divorce.

This situation presents the unique issue of whether reclaimed copyrights are community property of the marital estate or separate property belonging to the individual composer. Under California’s Family Code, as is true with most states, community property is defined as “all property, real or personal, wherever situated, acquired by a married person during the marriage.” The royalties associated with the songs produced during the course of their marriage would seemingly be considered community property, but Common law of California has exceptions, specifically as it pertains to superseding statutes.

According to Smokey's lawyers: "The 1976 Copyright Act expressly provides that these 'recaptured' copyrights belong to the author alone,” and the Act “precludes any transfer of those copyrights before the terminations themselves are effective. Thus, any transfer of such rights to any third party, whether [Claudette Robinson] nor a music publisher, was barred by the 1976 Copyright Act, and is therefore null and void."

Of course, Claudette and her lawyer offer a different perspective. "Congress did not intend for or authorize the exercise of termination rights by authors against third parties to result in a windfall taking of copyright and state law interests from their former spouses," writes Katten Muchin attorney Zia Modabber in the counterclaims fled in late April 2014.

While Robinson was given the right to administer and exploit his songs, He has promised that he would “not maliciously or willfully take any action with a view of damaging” his ex- wife’s interest. However, many legal insiders think that Smokey’s move to preemptively prevent his ex-wife from receiving financial benefits from the reclamation of his rights seems to violate the agreement.

Smokey and Claudette were married for 27 years, from 1957 to 1986. The two sang together as members of The Miracles until 1964, when Claudette stopped touring to raise their children.

Robinson is considered one of music’s most prolific songwriters. Throughout the 1960s he penned hits for the likes of The Temptations, The Supremes, Mary Wells, and The Miracles. In 1972, he went on to stage a

successful solo career that would yield a string of R&B and pop hits throughout that decade and well into the 1980s.

A date for their Federal court hearing has yet to be made public.

What do you think? Should Smokey be allowed to keep 100% of his newly obtained rights, or is Claudette entitled to a percentage?

Author Biography:

Stacy M. Allen has served as counsel on an array of legal matters including civil and criminal law, family law, bankruptcy, and even terrorism cases. Stacy is a proud graduate of St. Edward’s University where she graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations with a concentration in Latin America, and of Howard University School of Law, in Washington, DC, where she served as President of the Huver I. Brown Trial Advocacy Moot Court Team. Her current practice focuses on a variety of civil litigation and criminal law matters.

Stacy M. Allen, Attorney at Law (@SMAllen_Esq)

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