Friday 31 August 2012

The Godfather: Can you copyright a film character?

The Godfather was initially written as a novel by Mario Puzo, before Paramount Pictures produced the film in 1972. Before he died in 1999 ,Mario Puzo wrote the screenplay for The Family Corleone, the prequel The Godfather, however the screenplay was never produced. Subsequently Ed Falco wrote a novel, The Family Corleone, based on Mario Puzo's screenplay. His novel was published by Grand Central Publishing, and was released on 8 May 2012. 

© Jim Unterschultz
Prior to publication, Paramount Pictures stepped in to try to prevent the new novel being published. Paramount sued Mario Puzo's estate in March of this year, seeking a declaration that it owned the publishing rights to any book that was a prequel or a sequel to The Godfather. Paramount claims that it bought copyright in The Godfather from Mario Puzo in 1969. Paramount says that this included all literary rights and the rights to use any characters "created for the story in other works."
Unsurprisingly, Mario Puzo's estate has now requested confirmation from the courts that Paramount does not have any rights over future films in the The Godfather franchise. The estate says that the original agreement between Paramount and Mario Puzo did not include book publication rights therefore the estate owns the publishing rights as well as  the film rights to all new books.
The idea/expression dichotomy springs to mind here: copyright cannot protect an idea and it can sometimes be difficult to protect characters. In the UK we know from Hodgson v Isaac that the entire plot of a book cannot be copied, and it is therefore arguable that if a character is described in a sufficiently detailed and original way that it too could be protected by copyright. The fact pattern in this case is relatively complicated, and the case may turn on what the contract said rather than on copyright law, but either way this will be an interesting one to watch.


1 comment:

Paul Edward Geller said...

Check out the "Sam Spade" case: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc. v. Columbia Broad. Sys., Inc., 216 F.2d 945 (9th Cir. 1954). The copyright aspects of this "Godfather" case seem to me, without knowing the full facts, more complex than in the "Sam Spade" case. If the court can wholly decide this new case on any contractual basis, often ruled by state law in the U.S., it may well do so.