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What the Smokey Robinson dispute teaches us about copyrights

If you're a long-time reader of our blog, then you know we've been following the intellectual property case of Smokey Robinson and his ex-wife. As we explained in a March 2014 post, the crux of the case concerned the copyrights to several of Robinson's songs that had been created during the course of his marriage to his former wife. Both sides made compelling arguments, which pitted state marital property laws against federal copyright laws.

Now that the case has reached a resolution -- both sides reached a settlement in early December last year -- our Los Angeles readers can look at what made this case so problematic for the courts. By taking a closer look at the case, our readers might be able to learn from Robinson's actions in order to avoid a similar legal mess down the road.

The main difficulty with the Robinson case, as we pointed out in our 2014 post, lay in the discord between state and federal laws. Here in California, any property gained during the course of a marriage is considered community property and is therefore subject to division during divorce. In Robinson's case, his ex-wife argued that because the songs were written during the course of their marriage, she too had a stake in them. But here in where federal law creates some issue.

According to federal law, a copyright is attached to a creative work once it is fixed in a medium. In the sense of the law, Robinson owned the copyright immediately after the song was recorded which could be argued to have been community property. According to Robinson though, the rights to the songs were immediately given to his music publisher, meaning it was not his property during the course of the marriage.

As our more frequent readers know, complex legal cases like this one are hardly rare in the entertainment industry. This is because most people realize the value of a piece of creative work and want to make sure that they are protecting their rights and access to future royalties. Disputes like that in the Robinson case jeopardize this possibility, which is why legal representation is so important and necessary in most cases.

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