Judge Rules For Family in Steinbeck Copyright Case

Posted on June 13, 2006

A judge has awarded the publishing rights to some of John Steinbeck's most important novels to Steinbeck's son and granddaughter.

U.S. District Judge Richard Owen ruled Steinbeck's son, Thomas Steinbeck, and his granddaughter, Blake Smyle, deserve the legal rights to ten novels including Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. The rights had previously belonged to publisher Penguin, dating back to 1938, as well as to the estate of John Steinbeck's late widow, Elaine.

In his ruling Owen noted that U.S. copyright laws now recognise that young writers and artists such as Steinbeck, who died in 1968 but began writing his first book in 1929, "cannot predict the high stature they would attain" when signing early contracts with publishers. The judge ruled that Penguin failed in its arguments that a 1994 agreement with Elaine Steinbeck, who died in 2003, gave Penguin continued publication rights to the novels.

"My clients' primary concern here is to protect and preserve the legacy of John Steinbeck," said Mark Lee, lawyer for Thomas Steinbeck and Blake Smyle. "They are gratified that the judge recognised the correctness of their position." Maureen Donnelly, a spokeswoman for Penguin, said the company was "evaluating its options" following the ruling, noting the decision "would not take effect for many years in the future." Susan Kohlmann, attorney for the estate of Elaine Steinbeck, said: "We are disappointed in the part of the opinion that relates to the Penguin termination notice and considering what to do."

The judge also took the movie rights to The Long Valley and The Red Pony and transferred ownership to Steinbeck's relatives. In 2012, Penguin must turn over the rights to Of Mice and Men and in 2014 it must turn over the rights to The Grapes of Wrath. It's a significant victory for Steinbeck's relatives: classics make quite a bit of money because they're always in print and a new crop of freshman college students have to buy them every year.

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