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Of Copyrights and Caselaw: Steinbeck Heirs Denied Cert

By Tanya Roth, Esq. | Last updated on

John Steinbeck's heirs won't be standing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court anytime in the near future. The U.S. Supreme Court denied their petition for certiorari in a dispute centered around the copyrights to the famous author's works.

The case was filed by Thomas Steinbeck, the sole surviving son of John Steinbeck. Currently, Thomas and his daughter, Blake Smyle, receive a portion of the proceeds from Steinbeck book sales, reports The Associated Press.

The two heirs sought to regain control of the rights to publish the works, based on a 1938 grant of copyright license.

The Copyright Act gives to authors and certain specified family members the power to terminate prior grants of transfers or licenses of copyright.

Why? Because Congress recognized that rookie authors frequently enter into long-term contracts with publishers as a result of the imbalanced bargaining position they find themselves in. Congress thus "attempted to give the author a second chance to control and benefit from his work" and to "secure to the author's family the opportunity to exploit the work if the author died" through enactment of the relevent provisions in the Copyright Act.

John Steinbeck entered into one of these arrangements back in 1938, with Viking Press. At that time, the Copyright Act of 1909 was in effect and authors were entitled to a copyright in their works for twenty-eight years from the date of publication. At the end of this period, the author could renew the copyright for another twenty-eight years.

In 1978, the law was amended and instead of two periods of twenty-eight years, there was one long period. These amendments also allowed the authors (or their heirs) to terminate a grant of a transfer or license of copyright effected before 1978.

The Steinbeck heirs issued a Termination Notice in 2004. This notice was supposed to terminate the 1938 copyright grant.

The issue here was the fact that Elaine Steinbeck, the third wife of the author, was a party to an agreement made in 1994. According to the publisher, the 1994 agreement terminated the 1938 agreement.

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held for the publisher. Now, SCOTUS is declining to review the case which well may be the end of the road for Steinbeck's heirs.

John Steinbeck most famous works include "Of Mice and Men," "Grapes of Wrath" and "East of Eden." He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

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