Please wait while the page is loading...


Latest in New Zealand divorced couple copyright case: Artist gets exclusive rights

14 March 2024

Latest in New Zealand divorced couple copyright case: Artist gets exclusive rights

In February 2024, New Zealand’s Court of Appeal ruled in favour of painter Sirpa Elise Alalaakkola in a landmark copyright dispute involving the artist’s former husband, Paul Anthony Palmer, and paintings she completed during their 20 years of marriage.

The ruling confirmed that copyright created during a relationship is categorized as relationship property. New Zealand’s Property (Relationships) Act 1976 states that, as a general rule, there should be equal division of relationship property between individuals in a relationship. 

Alalaakkola, born in Finland and now living in Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand, and Palmer parted ways in 2017. In the couple’s divorce proceedings in 2020, the judge held that copyrights in the painter’s art pieces are not relationship property. Therefore, such copyrights attached to Alalaakkola’s paintings created during the marriage belong solely to her.

Acting on Palmer’s appeal, the High Court ruled in 2021 that copyright in Alalaakkola’s artistic work is relationship property and awarded him joint ownership of the copyrights.

Jenni Rutter, Partner, Dentons Kensington Swan, Auckland

Alalaakkola appealed this decision. The February 2024 Court of Appeal judgement held that Alalaakkola should have exclusive legal rights over her artworks for various reasons, including: 1) Her art was something personal to the artist, and 2) She wanted to handle her artworks’ commercialization. Palmer had said he planned to copy and sell his ex-wife’s art pieces.

Jenni Rutter, a partner at Dentons Kensington Swan in Auckland, agrees with the Court of Appeal ruling. However, she also understands why individuals who create for a living may find the decision objectionable. She explained that the current law in New Zealand provides that intangible assets created during a qualifying relationship, such as a marriage or civil union, are under the purview of relationship property rules. The law also recognizes that different types of contributions during a relationship have value. Thus, these things need to be weighed up when a relationship ends.

“The creation of intangible IP assets during a relationship is, in my view, not so different from the creation of other assets that they should be treated as exempt from the law. Nor should the difficulty in valuing them mean they go into the too-hard basket,” said Rutter. She also noted that other intangibles – such as goodwill, a share in a partnership, or reputation – are covered as well.

She continued: “I appreciate that copyright exists in works that are often deeply and inherently personal to their creator, and it may seem disagreeable that copyright is treated as relationship property. However, ownership and control of copyright is often traded in the context of works for hire, licensed works and other commercial exploitation. The Court of Appeal in this decision granted ownership and control of the artist’s copyright to her exclusively, while still finding that the copyright itself was a relationship property asset that needed to be valued and accounted for in the division of property,” said Rutter.

Nadia Ormiston, Senior Associate, Dentons Kensington Swan, Auckland

To achieve an equal division of relationship property among the divorced couple, the Court of Appeal added that compensatory adjustment from other relationship property be given to Palmer.

According to Rutter’s colleague Nadia Ormiston, senior associate, the recent decision may yet be appealed.

What is the takeaway from this case?

Ormiston answered: “As in many countries, the treatment of relationships under New Zealand law continues to evolve. Understanding and awareness of copyright and other intellectual property is also developing. Creators can protect themselves from the impact of relationship property laws by entering into contracting out agreements, and this would be prudent pending more certainty in this area.”

As Ormiston mentioned, the decision granting exclusive legal rights to Alalaakkola can still be appealed. Hence, further guidance regarding the issues of copyright and relationship property is yet to come, thus further shaping New Zealand’s legal framework for copyright.

- Espie Angelica A. de Leon

Law firms