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Copyright divorce dispute: Artist Sirpa Alalaakkola wins right to keep copyright after appeal from ex-husband

Editor Written by Editor · 2 min read >

Marlborough painter Sirpa Elise Alalaakkola has won her bid against her ex-husband’s claim to copyright on her work.

It was a question that had never been tested before the courts if my ex-partner owns the copyright to a bunch of work, am I entitled to half of it?

Now the Court of Appeal has made a ruling on a long-running case involving an artist and her now ex-husband, who claimed in court that he was entitled to half of her work so he could keep selling it.

The court has ruled that copyright is relationship property and should be shared, but declined to award Sirpa Alalaakkola’s ex-husband Paul Palmer half of the rights to her work.

Instead, Palmer will receive a larger share of other assets, so Alalaakkola can keep the rights to her work but both will still receive the equivalent of a 50 per cent share of their joint property.

Malborough-based Alalaakkola and Palmer married in 1997. She was a former Fulbright scholar with “many high-level exhibitions in Finland”, while he said he played a significant role in selling his wife’s work during the marriage. The couple lived off the proceeds from the art sales.

The case first went to the Family Court in 2020, when Palmer sought the transfer of copyright for a list of specific paintings so he could reproduce and sell them. Alalaakkola was happy for Palmer to keep the paintings, but firmly opposed transferring the copyright.

The Family Court judge eventually found the works were relationship property under the Property Relationships Act, but the copyrights were derived from Alalaakkola’s skills. The judge classified the copyrights as her own separate property.

Sirpa Elise Alalaakkola said her work is her identity and soul. Photo / 123rf
Sirpa Elise Alalaakkola said her work is her identity and soul. Photo / 123rf

Palmer appealed to the High Court, with Justice Andru Isac ruling the works and the copyright were relationship property and should be divided. He referred the case back to the Family Court to value and divide the copyrights.

Alalaakkola then appealed to the Court of Appeal in March last year, with the court releasing its ruling today.

She said the copyrights were inextricably tied to her skills as the creator of the art – skills that were personal to her and acquired before her relationship with Palmer.

Alalaakkola added that the copyrights are intrinsically connected to her business of producing and selling the art. As she began the business before the relationship, they must be, at least in part, her separate property. The post-separation income she expects lies in the art’s commercialisation, she said.

Ultimately, the court ruled the High Court was right in finding the copyrights are relationship property. But there remained a question over how it was equally divided.

While the High Court referred the case back to the Family Court to value the copyrights and order division, in the Court of Appeal Alalaakkola sought an order that she retain sole ownership of the copyrights as part of the overall division.

She was concerned that transferring copyrights to Palmer would negatively impact her business and reputation, and be inconsistent with the “clean break” principle of the Property Relationships Act.

“I am my art and my art is me,” she told the court. She was worried Palmer would expose sensitive work, or flood the market with cheap prints.

Meanwhile, Palmer sought an order that the copyrights be divided equally.

“It is our view that it is consistent with the overall policy objectives of the Copyright Act that Ms Alalaakkola, as the author and creative force behind the Artworks, be able to continue to control the commercialisation of the Copyrights.”

The court said she could potentially find herself in competition with her own work, as Palmer would be incentivised to maximise profits from her older work.

While the copyrights are relationship property and subject to equal sharing, that doesn’t mean each specific item of property had to be divided equally – only the overall pool.

The court ordered the copyrights remain with Alalaakkola, but for Palmer to receive an adjustment to his division to reflect Alalaakkola’s keeping of the copyrights.

Ethan Griffiths covers crime and justice stories nationwide for Open Justice. He joined NZME in 2020, previously working as a regional reporter in Whanganui and South Taranaki.

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