I recently read that Smokey Robinson had settled a dispute with his ex-wife Claudette over his right to exercise the termination of copyright assignment in his songs under the 1976 Copyright Act. While I am all for both marital harmony and post-marital harmony it would have been fascinating to see how a court might have interpreted this intersection of federal copyright law and domestic relations.
Robinson had taken the somewhat unusual step of filing an action for a declaratory judgment apparently after receiving a letter from his former wife's counsel asserting a community property interest in the compositions in question, despite the fact that the couple had been divorced nearly for three decades. He wanted the court to confirm the fact that the Copyright Act gives the right to terminate assignments and recapture copyrights to the author alone and not an ex-spouse and presumably, despite whatever economic effect this might have on the ex-spouse).
The Copyright Act is pretty clear in this particular area but it does provide some fairly troublesome questions for divorcing spouses. One wonders if when divorcing in 1985, the Robinsons even contemplated that Smokey would be able to recapture the copyrights to his greatest hits. Was there a duty of disclosure (of an event that might occur 29 years in the future)? We often see how divorce settlements can be impacted by the Copyright Act but I think that this might have presented a different take on the issue. As the clock begins to run on some of these massive hits from the 60s and beyond we will no doubt see more of these cases and they are tremendously important.