Reverses decision on publishing rights

A federal appeals court on Wednesday reversed a ruling that awarded John Steinbeck’s son and 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 Steinbeck’s widow, Elaine Steinbeck. John Steinbeck died in 1968, his wife in 2003.

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

The 2nd Circuit panel returned the case to the lower court with instructions to leave the rights with various individuals and organizations, including publisher Penguin and Elaine Steinbeck’s heirs, who include her sister, four children and grandchildren.

The court cases centered around who would get control of the copyrights and the accompanying decisionmaking power over how the works could be used in publishing, movies, television, commercials and various other media including the Internet.

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

Attorney Susan J. Kohlmann, who represented John Steinbeck’s estate, said the estate and its heirs were delighted. She said the appeals ruling meant “the wishes of John Steinbeck related to ownership of his literary works have been validated.”

In a statement, Penguin Group said it was “tremendously gratified” and looked forward to continuing to work as Steinbeck’s publisher.

Steinbeck signed agreements with the Viking Press in 1938 and 1939 covering many of his best-known works.

The duties of the Viking Press were later assigned by Viking to Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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 John Steinbeck works and some of his posthumous works. It also improved the economic terms, providing a larger annual guaranteed advance and royalties of between 10% and 15% of retail sales.

When Elaine Steinbeck died, she 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 Steinbeck, and Smyle, the sole surviving child of his other son, the late John Steinbeck IV, served notice to Penguin that they were terminating its publication rights, which originated with the agreements made in the 1930s.

In doing so, they were using 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, asking for a declaratory judgment that their termination notice was invalid because the 1994 agreement had superseded and terminated the deals made in the 1930s. In a related legal action, the heirs of Steinbeck’s widow asked for the same thing.

A lower court judge sided with Steinbeck’s son and granddaughter.

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