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Far From Eden: Steinbeck Heirs' Copyright Suit Denied Review

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on June 14, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A long standing Copyright Act dispute before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals was denied rehearing by the U.S. Supreme Court this week.

The case involves a 1938 copyright of some very famous works -- titles including "Grapes of Wrath" and "Of Mice and Men."

The heirs of the late author John Steinbeck have been litigating their rights to his works for several years. The copyright lawsuit was brought by the author's only living son, Thomas Steinbeck. The younger Steinbeck and his daughter, Blake Smyle, currently receive a portion of the proceeds from Steinbeck book sales, reports The Associated Press.

The Law:

The law at issue before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals was whether a contract superceded a Notice of Termination of copyright. Broadly speaking, the Copyright Act of today gives authors and their heirs the power of termination on prior grants of transfers or licenses of copyright.

The Copyright Act has been amended much over the years and in 1978, amendments were enacted allowing the authors (or their heirs) to terminate a grant of a transfer or license of copyright effected before 1978.

This power of termination exists largely due to the fact that Congress sought to protect young authors from their disparate bargaining position with publishers. Thus, the enactment of certain provisions gave the authors a second chance at protecting their rights and preserving the rights for their heirs

Quick Facts:

In 1938, John Steinbeck entered into a copyright agreement with his then-publisher, Viking. While at that time, the publisher had a twenty eight year period for the copyrights with the option of extension for another twenty eight years, the Copyright Act was amended several times since then and eventually, Steinbeck's heirs were given rights to terminate any such copyrights.

However, there was also an agreement entered into in 1994, which allegedly terminated these rights in favor of Steinbeck's third wife, Elaine Steinbeck.

Thomas Steinbeck and Blake Smyle also issued a Termination Notice several years later, in 2004. They allege that this notice should have terminated the 1938 grant -- and that the power of termination essentially rested with them.

While the District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the heirs, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment and ruled in favor of the publisher, citing that Elaine Steinbeck's contract terminated the 1938 copyright.

The parties tried to take their case to the high court but unfortunately for them, SCOTUS denied their writ of certiorari.

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