Monday, September 25, 2023
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Steinbeck Heirs Turn Up the Wrath

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Family members in a decades-long battle over John Steinbeck's works filed competing lawsuits over stage rights to "Of Mice and Men" and movie adaptations of "The Grapes of Wrath" and "East of Eden."

On Friday, Steinbeck's son Thomas Steinbeck and granddaughter Blake Smyle claimed in Federal Court that Waverly Scott Kaffaga, the daughter of Steinbeck's widow, Elaine Steinbeck, had 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 McIntosh & Otis, Kaffaga exploited stage rights to "Of Mice And Men" without paying them royalties.

"Defendants continue to exploit rights owned by plaintiffs without plaintiffs' permission, and not paying plaintiffs the sums they are owed from defendants' unauthorized exploitation of those rights despite a legal and contractual obligation to do so," the complaint states.

The lawsuit echoes many of the claims Thomas Steinbeck made against McIntosh & Otis in an October filing with the California Labor Commissioner's Office.

Kaffaga replied Monday with her own federal lawsuit, filing as executor of The Estate of Elaine Anderson Steinbeck. She claims that Steinbeck left all his intellectual property rights to her mother, while setting up a $50,000 trust for Thomas and John Steinbeck IV, his sons from a previous marriage. Kaffaga is the daughter of actor Zachary Scott.

In her lawsuit, she claims that in the past five years Thomas Steinbeck, his wife Gail Knight Steinbeck and their company The Palladin Group have meddled in several Steinbeck projects.

In 2009, the Steinbecks made several unreasonable demands as the estate planned audiobook versions of Steinbeck's works at Penguin, Kaffaga claims. She says they asked for a final say on narrators, the publisher, cover art, and demanded a $111,000 advance.

Two years ago, Gail Knight Steinbeck tried to block a Steinbeck-inspired concert featuring Mumford & Sons, a 2013 documentary film about "The Grapes of Wrath," and a Steinbeck parody, according to the lawsuit.

The Steinbecks attempted to block negotiations which began in 2013 at Dreamworks Studios for a "The Grapes of Wrath" adaptation, and an "East of Eden" movie at Universal Studios, Kaffaga says.

The complaints cite differing interpretations of a 1983 agreement that settled a dispute over royalties.

Kaffaga says that the agreement makes clear that her mother's estate has "complete power and authority" to make works based on Steinbeck's intellectual property. Under that agreement, Thomas Steinbeck agreed to give up control of copyrights for work renewed after Steinbeck's death, in return for a one-third share of royalties, she claims.

Thomas Steinbeck concedes that the settlement gives Kaffaga the right to manage the rights to certain Steinbeck works. But he claims that between 2004 and 2006 he filed notices with the U.S. Copyright Office for "The Red Pony," "The Long Valley," and "Of Mice and Men," after previously granted movie rights for those properties expired.

Thomas Steinbeck claims that Kaffaga refuses to acknowledge that he holds rights to those three works.

He says that after Elaine Steinbeck challenged the validity of his termination notices at the copyright office, he filed suit against her in 2004.

A New York federal judge found that termination notices for "The Red Pony" and "Long Valley" were valid, according to Thomas.

The 2nd Circuit reversed a finding of summary judgment in favor of Thomas, but did not disturb the court's ruling on the "The Red Pony" and "Long Valley."

He also claims that he has an ownership interest in "Of Mice and Men" because the New York judge "expressly rejected" a claim that the 1983 settlement invalidated the notice of termination of "non-professional stage rights."

Kaffaga wants the court to bar Thomas Steinbeck, Gail Knight Steinbeck and Palladin from asserting ownership or control over Steinbeck's works.

Thomas Steinbeck asked the court to enjoin Kaffaga from infringing his copyright interest in the three works, and a declaration that Kaffaga and McIntosh & Otis breached an agreement to account for his share of royalties for the production of "Of Mice and Men."

Both parties seek compensatory damages and costs.

Named as defendants in Thomas Steinbeck's lawsuit are Kaffaga, her three sons Bahar Kaffaga, David Scott Farber, Jebel Kaffaga, her daughter Anderson Farber King, Elaine Steinbeck's sister Jean Anderson Boone, Dramatists Play Service, and McIntosh & Otis.

Represented by Mark Lee with Manatt, Phelps, & Phillips, Thomas Steinbeck seeks damages for direct copyright infringement, contributory copyright infringement, breach of contract and breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

Kaffaga is represented by Andrew J. Thomas with Jenner & Block. She alleges breach of contract, slander of title, and intentional interference with prospective economic advantage.

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