As we’ve previously reported (and with apologies to the author), the grapes of copyright wrath have been trampled by the U.S. court system over the past ten years in a series of lawsuits filed by the descendants of John Steinbeck against one another. With books like The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and Of Mice and Mento his credit, Steinbeck’s place in the literary pantheon of great American authors is certain, but ownership of the lucrative rights to his books that fall annually on high school and college reading lists across the country is much less so. Nevertheless, a series of recent rulings in U.S. courts may be bringing the decade long struggle to an end.
John Steinbeck passed away in 1968, but when he died he left behind not only a legacy of popular literature but also a muddled family line of inheritance. During his lifetime, he was married several times and at the time of his death he was married to his third wife, Elaine, who is also now deceased. Elaine appointed as the executor of her estate daughter Waverly Scott Kaffaga who has been licensing the rights to several of the author’s works, including Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony, and The Long Valley as part of the estate.
Steinbeck’s offspring by his second wife, son Thomas and granddaughter Blake Smyle, filed suit against Kaffaga in the Ninth Circuit claiming that such use is an infringement of their own rights in the works and a violation of a 1983 settlement agreement with Elaine. The 1983 settlement agreement gave her complete power and authority over the works on condition that she share the royalties with them. Previously, in 2006, Thomas and Blake obtained a court order in the U.S. Second District terminating Elaine’s rights but that decision was subsequently overturned.
In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the contract fight over control of Steinbeck’s literary works and left in place the ruling in favor of Elaine’s estate. The 2011 decision was the second time the Supreme Court had declined to consider the copyright termination dispute between Elaine’s estate and Steinbeck’s son and granddaughter (the first was denied review in 2009). Earlier, Thomas and Blake had appealed a Second Circuit ruling dealing with a 1994 agreement by Elaine Steinbeck to extend Penguin Group Inc.’s exclusive publication rights to the author’s works and they had sought to renegotiate the rights to Steinbeck’s works in 2004 by exercising their right to terminate the author’s original 1938 grant of copyright to his works.
Dismissing the latest lawsuit with prejudice, U.S. District Court Judge Terry J. Hatter, Jr. wrote in his opinion, “Plaintiffs have litigated these claimsad naseum. Plaintiffs are attempting to use this Court after having exhausted their attempts in the Second Circuit, to revoke the validity of the 1983 agreement to recover rights to the Steinbeck Works, after Plaintiffs, cognizant of the value inherent in copyrights of the Steinbeck Works, signed over control and authority to Elaine Steinbeck (estate). This action is barred by collateral estoppel.”
Why It Matters. Nothing lasts forever, even copyrights (unless you’re the Walt Disney Company). And, if you’re going to use someone else’s copyrighted material you would be well-advised to know for certain that you have the right to use it. However, the rules that govern the duration of copyrights can be tricky, especially when those rights are complicated by various contractual agreements and assignments to third parties. And, they get even fuzzier and harder to decipher when they involve competing groups of descendants. Just ask the heirs of famed comic book artist Jack Kirby.