It’s not wise to cross Don Corleone. Apparently, it’s also not wise to cross Paramount Pictures, the movie studio that claims rights in the iconic character and the stories featuring the Corleone family (or Family). On February 17, 2012, Paramount brought suit against the estate of Mario Puzo, the author of the original “The Godfather” novel, over sequel novels Paramount claims infringe on its copyright and trademark rights. (The case is currently pending in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York and the complaint may be viewed here). 

Paramount purchased the rights in “The Godfather” from Mr. Puzo in November 1969. According to Paramount, those rights included all rights to create derivative works (read: sequels) to “The Godfather,” in addition to the movie rights. The studio released the movie adaptation of Mr. Puzo’s novel in 1972.  Since then, “The Godfather” has become one of the most influential and critically acclaimed movies of all time. The movie won three Academy Awards, to include the coveted Best Picture; spawned two sequels (“The Godfather Part II” and “The Godfather Part III”); and was named the third best movie of all time by the American Film Institute. (“The Godfather Part II” also ranks on the list at spot number 32, and AFI has since bumped the original “Godfather” movie to the second place spot, behind “Citizen Kane”). “The Godfather” is arguably also one of the most quoted pieces of pop culture, offering some of the most memorable lines in Hollywood history, to include the infamous “I’m gonna make him an offer he won’t refuse.

Paramount and Mr. Puzo apparently maintained a good relationship during Mr. Puzo’s life and Mr. Puzo worked with Paramount on the “Godfather” motion picture sequels. After Mr. Puzo’s death, his estate and Paramount entered into an agreement to publish a “Godfather” sequel novel, “The Godfather Returns.”  The novel was successful, and the Puzo estate released a second sequel novel, “The Godfather’s Revenge” in 2006. A third sequel, “The Family Corleone,” is set to be released in May 2012.

Paramount, however, takes issue with the latter two sequels, claiming that, unlike the first novelized sequel, these books were not authorized by Paramount and infringe Paramount’s copyright rights, as well as Paramount’s trademark rights to THE GODFATHER. Paramount also accuses the latter novels of being “mediocre” and hurting the value of Paramount’s Godfather-related intellectual property. The Puzo estate disagrees with Paramount’s assertions. According to the estate, the copyright purchase did not include publishing rights for the sequel novels.

Currently, the issue appears to hinge on the interpretation of the language transferring the copyright in the original 1969 contract between Mr. Puzo and Paramount. Regardless of which powerful organization emerges the winner in the Godfather turf war, however, the case serves as an important reminder to those engaging in intellectual property transfers to specifically identify and describe exactly what rights are transferred and retained in their contracts.