9th Circuit Finds No Infringement in Steinbeck Family Feud

PASADENA, Calif. (CN) – The Ninth Circuit Court on Thursday waded into an ongoing family feud over the works of John Steinbeck, ruling the celebrated author’s sons and a daughter-in-law have no right to stop movie adaptations of his literary work.

Earlier this year, Steinbeck’s step-daughter Waverly Scott Kaffaga was awarded $13 million on claims that the author’s son Thomas Steinbeck, now deceased, and his wife Gail interfered in talks to adapt “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden.”

At about the same time Kaffaga filed her lawsuit, however, Thomas Steinbeck and granddaughter Blake Smyle claimed in Federal Court that Kaffaga, the daughter of John Steinbeck’s third wife Elaine, ignored their interest in “Of Mice And Men” and ownership of 1933’s “The Red Pony,” and 1938’s “The Long Valley.”

Steinbeck adapted the “Of Mice and Men” play from his own 1937 novella. A recent revival of the play was a Broadway hit, starring James Franco and Chris O’Dowd.

Steinbeck’s heirs claim that with the help of Steinbeck’s literary agent, Kaffaga exploited stage rights to “Of Mice And Men” without paying them royalties.

A federal judge dismissed Thomas and Gail’s case, and on Thursday a per curiam Ninth Circuit panel affirmed without oral argument.

“The district court correctly concluded that the sons already have fully litigated whether they have a right to issue and exploit copyright terminations of Steinbeck’s works, and that the prior litigation held that the sons do not have those rights,” the appeals court said in a 3-page unpublished memorandum.

In an email, Kaffaga said, “We are gratified that the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of this case against the estate. The decision recognizes our full control of the rights to works by John Steinbeck, and we look forward to upholding the estate’s mission of sharing his legacy with the world.”

Gail Knight Steinbeck’s attorney Kenneth Freundlich did not return a message seeking comment by press time.

Thomas died in August 2016 and was involved in a feud with Elaine Steinbeck in 1981. His late brother, John Steinbeck IV sued for a larger share of royalties from their father’s work. They settled in 1983 for an even split of royalties from certain Steinbeck books.

In their ruling, Circuit Judges Jacqueline Nguyen and Andrew Hurwitz and U.S. Court of International Trade Judge Richard K. Eaton, sitting by designation, noted the issues raised in Gail Steinbeck’s lawsuit had been argued “ad nauseum” before the Second Circuit.

The Second Circuit upheld the 1983 settlement agreement over royalties, and spelled an end to the sons’ rights to the books not a part of the settlement.

In 2009, Kaffaga said Thomas and Gail made several demands regarding audiobook versions of John Steinbeck’s work through their company The Palladin Group. Kaffaga also said in her 2014 lawsuit they demanded an advance of $111,000.

In 2012, Gail also interfered in a Steinbeck-inspired concert featuring the band Mumford and Sons, a documentary on “The Grapes of Wrath” and a parody, according to the lawsuit. And Thomas Steinbeck and his granddaughter Blake Smyle filed lawsuits over stage rights to “Of Mice and Men” and movie adaptations.

In her lawsuit, Kaffaga claimed Thomas and his wife stalled negotiations between the estate and Dreamworks Studios for a Steven Spielberg adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath” that would have starred Daniel Day-Lewis, and a Jennifer Lawrence project at Universal Studios for “East of Eden.”

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