NEWARK, N.J. — In the 1989 sequel to "Back to the Future," Michael J. Fox's character uses his flying time machine to travel to a 2015 filled with flying skateboards, automated dog-walkers and self-drying jackets.
Little did he know that when 2015 finally rolled around, the car used in the movie would be in the middle of a legal battle pitting a Texas company against the widow of maverick automaker John DeLorean.
DeLorean's eponymous creation co-starred in the original 1985 movie as it transported Fox's Marty McFly back to the 1950s to engineer his parents' meeting, and it was featured in two sequels.
Now, DeLorean's widow, Sally, claims in a federal lawsuit that Texas-based DeLorean Motor Company has been illegally using the DeLorean name to sell hats, pens, notebooks, key chains and other items, and has illegally licensed the name and images to other companies including Nike, Mattel, Urban Outfitters and Apple. The company has never been formally affiliated with the one DeLorean started.
The Texas company "has improperly and illegally appropriated for its own use Mr. DeLorean's legacy, including the DeLorean Identity, together with intellectual property," the lawsuit alleges.
The suit claims the company has plans to manufacture an electric version of the car, which it says would be illegal because the car's design belongs to John DeLorean's estate.
In addition to seeking to stop the company from continuing to use the trademarks, the suit seeks damages as well as the company's profits derived from their use. Through its attorney, the company has denied all claims and asserted it has the right to the trademarks.
A settlement conference is scheduled for next month.
John Z. DeLorean was an automotive innovator who began his career at General Motors and is credited by some with creating America's first "muscle" car, the Pontiac GTO, in the mid-1960s. He left GM in the early 1970s to launch his own company and eventually produced the DMC 12, referred to simply as "the DeLorean," a sleek, angular car with gull-wing doors and an unpainted stainless-steel exterior.
Only about 9,000 of the cars were produced before DeLorean's company went bankrupt in the early 1980s, but the car's look and cult following helped land it a role in the "Back To The Future" films. According to the Internet Movie Database, the car was chosen because it would plausibly look like a spacecraft to people in the 1950s flashback scenes.
DeLorean died in New Jersey in 2005 at age 80 after years of court battles that included a highly publicized drug trial in the 1980s in which he was acquitted of conspiring to sell millions of dollars of cocaine. His former estate in the rolling hills about 40 miles west of New York City was converted into a golf course by developer Donald Trump in 2004. Sally DeLorean lives in New Jersey with her daughter.
Attorney R. Scott Thompson, who represents Sally DeLorean, said John DeLorean bought his company's trademarks, images and other intellectual property during the company's bankruptcy proceeding. The lawsuit alleges that in 2004 he gave the owners of the Texas company permission to make a small modification to the car's user manual, and they acknowledged that DeLorean owned the intellectual property.
"There is definitely no written agreement" relinquishing the trademarks, Thompson said, adding, "to the extent that any written agreement exists, it says the opposite."
At that time, the lawsuit contends, the Texas company was a "small forum" where DeLorean enthusiasts could buy or sell parts or exchange information. The company disputes this characterization.
William Mead, a New Jersey-based attorney representing DeLorean Motor Company, said in an email that the company existed for 10 years prior to John DeLorean's death and has registered trademarks. He said DeLorean was aware of its operations and didn't express opposition.
The Texas company has been assembling and selling DeLorean cars made from original factory parts it acquired in the original bankruptcy proceeding, Mead said.
"Now, years after Mr. DeLorean's death, Sally DeLorean has unfortunately filed a lawsuit as a representative of the Estate of John DeLorean," Mead said. "The DeLorean Motor Company denies that the Plaintiff has any right or authority to prevent the DeLorean Motor Company from operating its thirty-year-old business, and has no right to money damages."