John DeLorean Estate Sues Over 'Back to the Future' Royalties

A war breaks out over payments from Universal Pictures for the time machine car.
Universal Pictures/Photofest
'Back to the Future' (1985)

If ever there was an automobile associated with a film, it's the iconic DeLorean time machine in Back to the Future. It turns out that Universal Pictures has been paying money to use the image of the car, but in a new lawsuit, the widow of automaker John DeLorean alleges not receiving a "substantial payment" from the studio.

According to a complaint in New Jersey federal court, the payment went to the DeLorean Motor Company.

Sally DeLorean previously sued the DeLorean Motor Company over intellectual property rights and settled in 2015, a decade after her husband died at age 80. The settlement provided DMC the ability to use the name "DeLorean" without further challenge from the John Delorean Estate, but the deal didn't address the Back to the Future arrangement with Universal.

Back in 1989, John DeLorean made a deal with Universal so that the studio could feature the car in advertising and in merchandising. According to a copy of the agreement (see below), he got 5 percent of net receipts from any merchandising and commercial tie-ups that utilized the DeLorean time machine as a key component.

Universal made payments throughout the years, but allegedly stopped at a certain point. When Delorean died in 2005, his estate didn't have the agreement to enforce rights.

But it appears that Sally DeLorean has been pursuing this and even threatened Universal, which is not a defendant in the new case.

"On or about February 13, 2018, an attorney for the Estate wrote to Universal seeking to enforce Mr. DeLorean's rights under the Universal agreement," states the complaint. "Universal responded by informing the Estate that a representative of DMC Texas had informed Universal that it owned Mr. DeLorean's rights under the Universal agreement by virtue of the Settlement Agreement, and had demanded payment. In reliance upon these false statements, Universal made a substantial payment to DMC Texas of amounts owed to Mr. DeLorean for many years of unpaid royalties."

The Estate is now demanding the money be turned over with a claim of unjust enrichment.

DMC couldn't be reached for comment, but according to the lawsuit, its attorney last week threatened to sue the Estate for tortious interference unless a request to Universal for payment was retracted.

No word on who, if anyone, was paid for use of the DeLorean in Steven Spielberg's recent film, Ready Player One, which went to pains to license material, but might not have imagined this present dispute.