Steinbeck's blood heirs win legal battle over rights to author's early novels

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The Independent Culture

The blood heirs of the American author John Steinbeck have been awarded the publishing rights to his early novels in a dispute with his publishers and the estate of his third and final wife.

A federal judge in New York has ruled that the rights to 10 books, including such classics as The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, should be awarded to his son, Thomas Steinbeck, and granddaughter, Blake Smyle.

They had previously been the property of the publisher Penguin and the heirs of Steinbeck's third wife, Elaine, whom he married in 1950 after these legendary works had been produced.

District Judge Richard Owen ruled in favour of the author's family by his second wife, the singer Gwyndolyn Conger, to whom he was married from 1943 to 1949. Blake Smyle is the daughter of their second son, John, who died of drug and alcohol problems in 1991.

The blood heirs were also awarded the film rights for The Long Valley and The Red Pony, which previously belonged to Paramount, but were denied the film rights to Cannery Row and The Wayward Bus, for which they had also asked.

The wrangle arose because when the author died in 1968, aged 66, his will did not expressly mention the copyrights of his works.

Susan J Kohlmann, a lawyer for the estate of Elaine Steinbeck who died in 2003, told The New York Times: "We disagree with some of the judge's conclusions and are considering our options." A spokesman for Penguin told the BBC that it was disappointed with the ruling and was "evaluating its options".

Lawyers for Thomas Steinbeck and Ms Smyle said they planned to renegotiate contracts to publish the novels, possibly with other publishers.

It is understood that Penguin will turn over the rights to Of Mice and Men in 2012 and The Grapes of Wrath two years later.

Judge Owen said American copyright laws recognised young writers such as Steinbeck could not "predict the high stature they would attain" when they signed early contracts. The law permitted authors or their heirs to terminate contracts or renegotiate deals "allowing creators or their heirs appropriate rewards for their artistic gifts to our culture".