Judge upholds Par’s rights to ‘Godfather’

Denies Puzo estate's bid to scrap studio's 1969 pact with author

A New York federal judge has refused to sever Paramount’s rights to future “Godfather” film projects as part of an ongoing dispute over the ability of the estate of Mario Puzo to license literary sequels to the Corleone saga.

U.S. District Judge Alison J. Nathan dismissed the estate’s effort to cancel and rescind a 1969 agreement between Puzo and Paramount, which led to the classic “Godfather” films, because the studio sought to prevent the estate from publishing “The Family Corleone,” a sequel novel released earlier this year. In her decision issued Wednesday, she also rejected claims of tortious interference, but ruled that the estate can continue to pursue its claim for breach of contract.

The legal dispute started in February, when Paramount sued Puzo’s son and executor of his estate, Anthony, claiming that the pending publication of “The Family Corleone” and the 2006 publication of “The Godfather’s Revenge” violated its copyright and trademark in “The Godfather.”

But the Puzo estate, represented by Bert Fields, fought back by filing its own countersuit, charging that Paramount was claiming rights that it did not have. In doing so, the estate argued, Par interfered with publishing contracts. The result was a breach of the 1969 agreement, the estate claimed, as it had an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. “The Family Corleone” was published this year, but under an interim settlement agreement with Paramount in which funds that the estate received were placed into escrow.

Nathan noted that the 1969 agreement contained “no express contractual provision in which Paramount agreed to refrain from litigation or from contesting the estate’s interpretation of the rights granted and reserved under the contract.” She noted that Paramount’s “only express obligations under the contract” were to pay Puzo $50,000 plus a possible $25,000 depending on sales of the novel, and credit in the film.

Nathan did not render a decision on whether the estate or Paramount owns the book publishing rights to “Godfather” sequels. Central to the dispute, she noted, is language that was struck from the 1969 agreement that would have given Paramount the right to “publish said work and/or any versions or adaptations thereof, or any part or parts thereof, and to vend copies thereof.”

Paramount contends that the language was excised because Puzo already published “The Godfather,” and aside from rights to publish the original novel, retained no other rights in the saga. The estate claims the striking of the language meant that the author was reserving all book publishing rights to sequels and followups.

Nathan has scheduled a status conference in the case on Jan. 11.