A successful artist, who created a number of artworks during her 20-year marriage, faced a post-divorce legal battle to retain copyright control over her creations. This was an issue that had not been considered by the New Zealand Courts before.

The issue the Court of Appeal determined was whether copyrights created in artistic work should be classified as relationship property, when created by only one spouse during the relationship. If it was relationship property, sharing copyrights with her ex-husband could have resulted in him obtaining the right to reproduce and sell the artist’s works, including art that was never intended for the public.

This landmark case in New Zealand established a precedent, addressing whether copyrights obtained during a relationship qualify as relationship property and how they should be treated.

The Court decided that the copyrights were a type of property. As they were acquired during the relationship, they were also relationship property.

Although the copyrights were found to be relationship property, the Court found that the artist should have exclusive legal ownership.

The rationale aligns with the Copyright Act, safeguarding creators' exclusive control over original works and their commercialisation. The Court recognised the personal nature of the art and the potential threat to the artist's business if the husband also sold her art as she may be in competition with herself, or her personal brand may be damaged. The Court also considered that the artist held the moral rights of the artworks.

Despite the artist's exclusive ownership of the copyrights, her former husband received compensation from the other property owned by the parties so that there was an overall equal division of relationship property. The Court decided that this was the appropriate way to divide the copyrights, as requiring a transfer of some to the former husband would not enhance the parties’ ability to move on with their lives independently without conflict. 

If you are unsure about the assets in your relationship, are concerned about how they would be divided upon separation, or want to protect your assets, it is always advisable to consult a lawyer to clarify the situation.

Leading law firms committed to helping clients cost-effectively will have a range of fixed-price Initial Consultations to suit most people’s needs in quickly learning what their options are.  At Rainey Collins we have an experienced team who can answer your questions and put you on the right track.