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Court Ends Steinbeck Family Feud

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

Another chapter in John Steinbeck's legacy is over -- at least until the next one.

Steinbeck died almost 50 years ago, but his heirs have been fueding over his estate ever since. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently wrote another chapter in that sad story.

In Steinbeck v. Kaffaga, the appeals court closed the book on claims by the author's sons and daughter-in-law to movie adaptations of his literary work "Of Mice and Men."

Best Laid Plans

Steinbeck adapted a stageplay from his novella of the same name. "Of Mice and Men," starring James Franco, was recently a hit on Broadway.

The author's heirs, Thomas Steinbeck and Blake Smyle, claimed that his step-daughter Waverly Scott Kaffaga exploited the stage rights without paying them royalties. A federal judge dismissed their case, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

"The district court correctly concluded that the sons already have fully litigated whether they have a right to issue and exploit copyright terminations of Steinbeck's works, and that the prior litigation held that the sons do not have those rights," the appeals court said.

In their ruling, the judges said the issues in the case had been argued "ad nauseum" in another court.

"Ad Nauseum"

Several Steinbeck heirs were locked in litigation until 1983, when John Steinbeck IV, Thomas Steinbeck and Elaine Steinbeck settled for an even split of royalties from certain books. The sons' rights ended with that settlement.

But beginning 2009, various Steinbeck heirs sued over audiobooks, a documentary and a parody based on his works. Kaffaga later sued over their interference with a project to make an adaptation of "The Grapes of Wrath," that reportedly would have starred Daniel Day Lewis and a project with Jennifer Lawrence starring in "East of Eden."

That case ended earlier this year, when Kaffaga was awarded $13 million against Thomas Steinbeck, who died in 2016, and his wife.

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