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Who Gets the Intellectual Property During a Divorce

Who Gets the Intellectual Property During a Divorce?

Some property is easy to split during a divorce. One spouse may get the kitchen equipment, while the other gets the books. Maybe each spouse gets a car, and so on. With some intangible property, however, the division can be less clear cut. For example, intellectual property can be a bit of a mystery, which makes it difficult to divide during a divorce. Who gets the intellectual property? That depends on several factors.

Property Division, Generally

It’s been said a million times, but that’s because it is true: California is a community property state. This means that couples generally have equal ownership of property and debt acquired during their marriage. There are some exceptions. For example, gifts and inheritance usually remain the separate property of the spouse recipient.

Types of “Intellectual Property”

By definition, intellectual property typically is a work of human intellect. In practice, intellectual property rights may attach to:
  • Patents,
  • Copyrights,
  • Industrial design rights,
  • Plant varieties,
  • Trademarks, and
  • Trade secrets.
An inventor may have exclusive rights to an invention that is patented. Someone involved in an artistic or creative field may own the copyright to their works, which also gives them exclusive rights. If the inventor or artist owns the sole right to use or benefit from their intellectual property, is it their separate property? Should it be considered community property?

Dividing Intellectual Property During a Divorce

Generally, a spouse’s effort, time, and skill are considered community assets. During a divorce, each party must disclose all assets and debts to the other party, including patents, trademarks, copyrights, and other intellectual property. As with other property, intellectual property may be divided among the spouses, regardless of who actually created it. When it comes time to divide intellectual property, however, that property’s value can be a problem. A work of art or invention may not be profitable at the time of divorce but could generate future income. Determining whether an ex-spouse receives any future profits from intellectual property is a complicated issue. In re Marriage of Worth is one important California divorce case that involved intellectual property rights. The husband, Frederick L. Worth, had written and published several trivia books during his marriage to Susan Worth. When the couple divorced, they agreed to split the book royalties evenly. However, the husband later filed a lawsuit against the makers of the board game “Trivial Pursuit” claiming they had plagiarized his books. Though their divorce was final, Susan Worth claimed one-half of any proceeds from her husband’s lawsuit. Because the books were considered community property in the divorce, “such copyrights and related tangible benefits must be considered community property.” (See 1 Nimmer on Copyright (1987) §6.13[B], p. 6-37).

Intellectual Property – Divorce or Not – Is Complicated

If you or your spouse own interest in intellectual property, talk to an experienced California divorce attorney today. Please call us at (415) 293-8314 to schedule a confidential appointment with one of our attorneys. Ms. Burger is a California Certified Family Law Specialist and founder of the Law Offices of Judy L. Burger. We assist clients in California’s Northern to Central Coast, including San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Gold River, Santa Barbara, Ventura/Oxnard, and surrounding communities.