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The Steinbeck Family's Wrath Over Copyrights Continues

Henry Fonda (1905 - 1982), John Carradine (1906 - 1988) and John Qualen (1899 - 1987) in a scene from John Ford's screen version of John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel 'The Grapes of Wrath'. Fonda won an Academy Award for his performance and Ford won an Academy Award for best direction.   (Photo by Henry Guttmann Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
By Laura Temme, Esq. | Last updated on

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is set to hear arguments on the latest installment of a long-running conflict surrounding the works of writer John Steinbeck. Disputes between Steinbeck’s relatives regarding some of his most famous works span decades – a power struggle caught up in contractual agreements and changes to federal copyright law.

Film Projects Stall Amidst Conflicting Interests

In a time where film remakes dominate box offices all over the country, one might wonder why there hasn’t been a film adaptation of any of Steinbeck’s works since Of Mice and Men in 1992. As it turns out, family members have been approached many times over the years by industry big wigs (including Dreamworks, Universal Pictures, and Steven Spielberg) about film adaptations of both East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath. However, the constant threat of litigation led to the abandonment of many of those projects.

A Dispute Spanning Decades

The Steinbeck family’s discord over copyright ownership dates back more than 30 years. And in a case with as many players, appeals, agreements and disagreements as this one, it helps to have some historical perspective. Some of the main events in the family’s long-running drama include:

1968 – Author John Steinbeck dies, leaving the rights to his books to his third wife, Elaine Steinbeck. At that time, copyright holders had to renew their rights periodically. Since a few of the copyrights lapsed before Steinbeck’s death, Elaine only got control of his early work.

1976 – Congress passes a sweeping new federal copyright statute. The Copyright Act of 1976 extended the copyright term to the life of the author plus 70 years and allowed an author’s relatives to recapture copyrights that had been previously transferred.

1983 – An agreement between Steinbeck family members gives Elaine “complete power and authority” over licensing Steinbeck’s works so long as she shared royalties with her stepson, Thomas Steinbeck, and Steinbeck’s granddaughter, Blake Smyle.

2003 – Elaine Steinbeck dies, leaving her rights to Steinbeck’s works to her daughter, Waverly Scott Kaffaga, and literary agency McIntosh & Otis. She specifically excludes Thomas Steinbeck from her bequests.

2004 – Thomas Steinbeck and Blake Smyle attempt to terminate the grant of rights to Steinbeck’s works given to The Viking Press in 1938. Four years later, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals would find their termination ineffective.

2017 - A California jury awards Kaffaga $13 million in a lawsuit claiming Thomas Steinbeck and his wife, Gail, interfered with film adaptation deals. Now, the parties are headed back to court for the appeal. Attorneys for Thomas Steinbeck’s estate contend that the 1983 agreement violated the Copyright Act by restricting Thomas’s ability to exercise his termination rights.

If this all sounds messy, that’s because it is. Competing interests have been further complicated by changes to copyright law in the U.S., which for better or worse has changed drastically over the last 30 years. As these battles continue on, it seems anyone tasked with reading Steinbeck in their literature courses will have to actually read the book – because a new movie adaptation is unlikely to come out any time soon.

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