NEW YORK — The lawyer for the late creator of "The Godfather" stories told a judge Thursday that Paramount Pictures broke a nearly half-century-old deal with the writer and should no longer get exclusive rights to make movies based on books his heirs commission.
Attorney Bertram Fields told a federal judge in Manhattan that Paramount broke a 1969 contract when it went to publishers of the newest "Godfather" book and claimed the family did not have rights to publish it. "The Family Corleone" was published in May, though proceeds remain in an escrow account pending outcome of litigation.
A Paramount lawyer, Richard Kendall, countered that the company was only asserting its rights when it contacted publishers in December.
He said letting an assertion of rights nullify a longstanding contract would be holding companies such as Paramount "hostage to catastrophic consequences anytime they assert their rights."
U.S. District Judge Alison J. Nathan did not immediately rule.
Fields said "Godfather" creator Mario Puzo was insistent that he keep publishing rights to future books. He said Paramount paid Puzo between $50,000 and $75,000 for rights in a 1969 contract, though the author later made millions from subsequent contracts to write screenplays based on the books. Puzo died in 1999.
Fields told Nathan that he believed Paramount had made about $1 billion from "The Godfather."
Fields also said outside court that Puzo's children, two sons and a daughter, "would prefer not to do business with Paramount."
Paramount, which is owned by Viacom Inc., sued the late author's estate in March, seeking a declaration that it automatically owned book publishing rights in any book that was a sequel to "The Godfather." Paramount said in court papers that in 1969, it purchased from Puzo all rights and copyright interests in "The Godfather," including all "literary" rights and rights to use any characters created for the story in "other works."
Paramount said the only right left to the Puzo estate was the right to publish the original novel, "The Godfather," and to publish versions and adaptations.
As he discussed his client outside court, Fields briefly discussed Puzo's hatred of the Mafia, saying he had once warned him never to associate with organized crime members.
Fields recalled the colorful manner in which Puzo explained himself, saying the author told him that if he ever has a pet die, a man might appear at his doorstep to offer a new puppy, only to return years later and ask him to fix a legal case by doing something unethical.
"Mario said: `Don't take the puppy,'" Fields recalled with a smile.