Appeals court reverses Steinbeck copyrights ruling

A federal appeals court Wednesday reversed a ruling that awarded one of John Steinbeck's sons and a granddaughter publishing rights to 10 of the author's early works, including "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Of Mice and Men."



The ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will leave the rights in the hands of Penguin Group Inc. and the heirs of John Steinbeck's widow, Elaine. Author John Steinbeck died in 1968; his wife in 2003.



The appeals court said a lower court judge misapplied copyright law in awarding the rights in 2006 to the son, Thomas Steinbeck, and granddaughter Blake Smyle. Both already receive a portion of the proceeds of sales.



The case was returned to the lower court with instructions to leave the rights with various individuals and organizations, including the publisher Penguin and Elaine Steinbeck's heirs. The heirs include her sister, four children and grandchildren.



Mark S. Lee, the lawyer representing Thomas Steinbeck and Blake Smyle, said he was disappointed with the ruling.



Attorney Susan J. Kohlmann, who represented Steinbeck's estate, said the estate and its heirs were delighted, saying Wednesday's ruling meant "the wishes of John Steinbeck related to ownership of his literary works have been validated."



Penguin Group issued a statement saying it was "tremendously gratified."



Steinbeck signed agreements with The Viking Press in 1938 and 1939 covering many of his best-known works, including "The Grapes of Wrath," "Of Mice and Men," "The Long Valley," "Cup of Gold," "The Pastures of Heaven," "Tortilla Flat" and "In Dubious Battle."



The duties of The Viking Press were later assigned by Viking to Penguin Group (USA) Inc., now owned by Pearson PLC.



When Steinbeck died, he bequeathed his interest in the copyrights to his widow while his two sons each received $50,000 in trust funds.



In 1994, Elaine Steinbeck and Penguin signed a new agreement adding several other early Steinbeck works and some of his posthumous works. It also improved the economic terms, providing a larger annual guaranteed advance and royalties of 10 to 15 percent of retail sales.



When she died, Elaine Steinbeck left her copyright interests to heirs, including her children and grandchildren from a previous marriage, but she excluded John Steinbeck's two sons and their heirs.



In 2004, Steinbeck's surviving son, Thomas, and Smyle, the sole surviving child of his other son, the late John IV, informed Penguin that they were terminating its publication rights, dating to the 1930s agreements. They cited federal law aimed at preventing publishers from taking advantage of authors who sign away rights early in their careers before they have enough success to demand better terms.



Penguin responded by suing them, saying the 1994 agreement with Elaine Steinbeck had superseded and terminated the deals made in the 1930s. Her heirs filed a similar suit.



A lower court judge sided with Steinbeck's son and granddaughter, leading to Wednesday's decision by the 2nd Circuit.

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