NEW YORK (CN) – A district court incorrectly awarded the rights to some of John Steinbeck’s best-known books, including “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” to the iconic author’s son and granddaughter, the 2nd Circuit ruled.
The ruling is a win for Penguin Publishing and the heirs of Steinbeck’s widow, Elaine, whose rights to the works were challenged by Steinbeck’s son from another marriage, Thomas, and Blake Smyle, Thomas’ niece. When Elaine died in April 2003, she bequeathed the copyright interests to her heirs, but specifically excluded Thomas and his brother, John IV, and their heirs, including Smyle.
In 2004, Thomas and Smyle tried to terminate the copyright deal Steinbeck made in 1938 with Penguin’s predecessor, Viking Publishing.
The Copyright Act, recognizing that fledgling writers lack bargaining power, allows authors’ family members and heirs to terminate copyright transfers or licensing deals.
This provision led U.S. District Judge Richard Owen to uphold the notice of termination issued by Thomas Steinbeck and Smyle.
But the circuit court disagreed, focusing on a 1994 agreement that Elaine Steinbeck made with Penguin to renegotiate the terms of the 1938 contract. Because the 1994 deal “terminated and superseded” the earlier contract, the court ruled, it stripped Thomas and Smyle of their right to terminate Steinbeck’s original contract.