Judge Rejects John DeLorean Widow's Attempt at 'Back to the Future' Royalties

The DeLorean Motor Company gets to hold onto money from Universal Pictures.
Universal Pictures/Photofest

Sally DeLorean, the widow of automaker John DeLorean, can't turn back the clock on a 2015 settlement in her bid to collect ongoing royalties from Universal Pictures over the 1985 smash film Back to the Future. On Friday, a New Jersey judge ruled that Ms. DeLorean gave up the right to assert royalty claims when settling a prior trademark fight with the DeLorean Motor Company.

According to the complaint that was filed earlier this year, John DeLorean made a deal with Universal in the late 1980s so that the studio could feature the iconic time machine vehicle in advertising and merchandising. He was contractually entitled to 5 percent of net receipts from any 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. In February, an attorney for the John Delorean Estate contacted Universal to demand an accounting for money owed. Universal responded by informing the John Delorean Estate that the DeLorean Motor Company had itself asserted rights, and based on this representation, Universal had paid the auto company, not the one who founded that auto company.

Thus set up, the latest fight between the John Delorean Estate and the DeLorean Motor Company, which much like the visionary Back to the Future II, had those involved exploring what had happened in the first iteration.

The old lawsuit alleged that the DeLorean Motor Company had "improperly and illegally appropriated for its own use Mr. DeLorean's legacy," including his intellectual property. A settlement agreement closed that case.

U.S. District Court Judge Jose Linares concludes that materials licensed to Universal were included in the settlement.

"Though the terms 'Universal Agreement' or 'royalty payments' are not mentioned in the Settlement Agreement, the Court nonetheless finds that the subject matter of the Universal Agreement is covered by the Settlement Agreement," writes Linares. "The Court reaches this conclusion based on the overlap of the clear terms in both agreements."

The judge points to how the DeLorean Estate pledged not to sue the automaker for using "DeLorean" and the "DMC logo," and how Universal was given the right to use the appearance of the DeLorean automobile, the right to use the name "DeLorean" and have the "DMC" ago appear on the radiator grille of the time machine.

"Additionally, the Settlement Agreement and Universal Agreement both pertain to the use of the above-mentioned names and trademarks in a similar context, i.e., the manufacturing and merchandising of products displaying the DeLorean automobile's image and brand," continues the judge, adding that DeLorean Motor Company had until that time been selling "DeLorean" merchandise such as hats, pens, notebooks, luggage and keychains.

The judge dismisses the complaint. Here's the full opinion.