Disagreements on copyright to legendary story of „The Godfather“

Author: Inga Lukauskiene, Associated Partner, Attorney-at-law, Patent Attorney at METIDA, Court Mediator; Ausrine Sakalauskaite, junior lawyer at METIDA

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Marlon Brando in „The Godfather“ PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION

Many want to lead, to overtake all others and to be the best. Laudatory words, good grades or trophies are nothing else than signs of recognition, which allow us to feel noticed and valued for what we are doing. At the moment, people working in the film industry are eagerly waiting for their own assessments – the prestigious Oscar awards ceremony hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In Los Angeles (USA) on February 28th the Oscars will be handed out for the 88th time already, and the anticipation involves more and more people and causes more and more talks each time. While some are guessing which film will receive the Best Picture award and others fear that their favorite actor will be left without the long-awaited recognition again, we can’t help but wonder which movie would take the lead in the Intellectual Property Disputes category if such category existed?

Of course, it would be difficult to name the winner: over the years there were quite a number of disputes related to worldwide famous Oscar-winning movies. The Godfather: Part II (1974), the famous film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, which received as many as 6 Oscars, would not be an exception.

The crime novel The Godfather by Mario Puzo is such a fascinating story that many films were based on it. The author sold rights to adaptations of The Godfather to the motion picture company Paramount Pictures back in 1969 for USD 12,500 with an option to receive more money if a film is produced. Soon after, preparatory film-shooting work started and the story of Mario Puzo’s New York’s most powerful crime family caused an even greater public interest. People were anxious to know how the life of the influential Godfather, Don Vito Corleone, and his family turns out and waited for the story to be continued. According to Jonathan Karp, the former editorial director of the publishing company Random House, “Mario knew that The Godfather was his legacy and he didn’t want to touch it again because he knew he couldn’t top it.” In spite of that, Puzo didn’t mind that after his death another author would write a sequel to The Godfather (http://www.foxnews.com/story/2004/11/17/godfather-returns-in-new-book.html).

Random House trusted Mark Winegardner to write a sequel, so in 2004, after Mario Puzo’s death, the novel titled The Godfather Returns reached it’s readers. At that time, Paramount Pictures did not present any claims. According to them, the contract signed with Puzo discussed the publication of a sequel to the book The Godfather. However, it was not the last sequel of The Godfather as The Godfathers Revenge was released in 2006. When another novel (The Family Corleone) was announced to be released in 2012, Paramount Pictures took this matter to the Federal Court of United States. The film studio asked the court to declare that by releasing sequels to The Godfather, the son of Mario Puzo violated the rights of Paramount Pictures acquired under the 1969 contract, which were protected by the Copyright Act, and sought damages. The dispute arose from the crime novel The Family Corleone by Edward Falco, a sequel to the book The Godfather, written on the basis of a screenplay by Mario Puzo that had not been published until then.

According to Paragraph 201(d)(1) of the US Copyright Act, the ownership of a copyright may be transferred in whole or in part. In this case, the contract with Mario Puzo transferred the right to the adaptation of The Godfather but not to the book itself. Therefore, in February 2012, when Paramount Pictures sued Anthony Puzo in a US Federal Court seeking to prohibit the publication of The Family Corleone, the court decided that the actions of the defendant could not be considered as infringement of the film rights transfer contract signed in 1969 and did not contradict the provisions of the US Copyright Act (Paramount Pictures Corp. v. Puzo, No. 12-1268, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139827 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 26, 2012)). The Paramount Pictures lawsuit was rejected, and The Family Corleone appeared in book stores.

There are numerous disputes concerning the transfer of copyright similar to that between Paramount Pictures and Anthony Puzo. Most of them arises in respect of the scope of the copyright being transferred. Having written a book, the author may conclude a contract and transfer the right to screen adaptation to another person. However, this does not mean at all that the successor would acquire all of author’s economic rights and, therefore, he will not be able to object to the use of the work in any other way, nor to the publication or screen adaptation of its sequels. On the other hand, the author and the film’s creator may come to an agreement that it would be he who has the priority right to be offered the rights of screen adaptation of all sequels of the work.

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