Naperville Estate Planning Lawyer Discusses Dispute Over an Iconic Automobile and Royalties

royalties, Naperville estate planning lawyerFor most people, creating an estate plan involves deciding what will be done with their assets after their death. The transfer of assets is often completed relatively quickly, and the estate is effectively closed forever.

As an estate planning attorney, I realize that some estates are more complicated than others and may include longer-term considerations. Such is often the case for individuals who have created works of art, music, or other types of intellectual property during their lives. When an asset is expected to survive beyond a person’s lifetime, it is important to take steps to ensure the asset is properly handled well into the future.

A Complicated Story

In 1981, the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC) began production of a two-door sports coupe with stainless steel body panels. The car was officially called the DeLorean DMC-12, but it was the only model that DMC ever produced, so it quickly became known as just “the DeLorean.” With its high-tech look—which included gull-wing doors and a shiny exterior—the DeLorean was chosen by the makers of the Back to the Future film franchise to become a time machine. The silver car’s silver screen appearances firmly entrenched the DeLorean as a pop culture icon.

John DeLorean, the man behind DMC, reached an agreement with Universal Pictures in 1989 that gave him 5 percent of net receipts in exchange for allowing Universal to use the DeLorean in advertisements and merchandise related to the movies. The royalties agreement was reached in spite of the fact that DMC had gone bankrupt several years earlier. According to reports, Universal largely honored the agreement until John DeLorean’s death in 2005. But, that is when things got complicated.

The issue was that a British mechanic and entrepreneur named Stephen Wynne had created a new “DeLorean Motor Company” in 1995 and acquired rights to much of the property belonging to John DeLorean’s original company. In 2015, John’s wife filed a lawsuit against the new DMC regarding the rights to the image of the car, as well as to John’s name and image. The two sides reached a settlement that allowed the new DMC to continue using the company name and car-related rights while giving rights related to John to John’s estate.

Unfortunately, John’s deal with Universal was not directly addressed in the settlement. Thus, when John’s estate contacted Universal earlier this year about the royalties, the film company said that it had been making payments to the new DMC. Universal reportedly claimed that the new DMC claimed that DMC now owned the rights to the iconic DeLorean and, by extension, the rights to receive the royalties.

Attorneys for John’s estate have since filed a lawsuit against DMC requesting the royalties that DMC has received from Universal on the basis of unjust enrichment. The suit claims that the 2015 settlement did not give DMC contractual rights. Reports indicate that DMC has threatened a countersuit for tortious interference.

Avoiding Estate Disputes

Of course, many of the problems that have arisen in regard to the DeLorean’s royalty rights could have been prevented if they had been addressed in a comprehensive estate plan. To learn more about protecting the rights to your intellectual property beyond your lifetime, contact an experienced Naperville estate planning attorney. Call 630-756-1160 for a confidential consultation today.



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