Ever wonder who owns the rights to works of deceased authors? In a recent case, a federal appeals court overturned a 2006 ruling that had awarded John Steinbeck’s son and granddaughter the rights to 10 of his earlier works. As the AP reports, the new ruling reversed the decision and returned the rights to Penguin Group Inc. (Steinbeck’s publisher) and the heirs of his widow, Elaine, who died in 2003.
Ready for a tale as long and layered as Steinbeck's East of Eden? In 2004, Steinbeck’s son and granddaughter informed Penguin they were terminating its rights from the contracts signed in the 1930s. According to the AP, they cited federal law that aims to prevent publishers from taking advantage of authors who sign copyright agreements early in their careers, before they have enough success to demand better terms. In turn, Penguin sued; a judge ruled that the son and granddaughter should be able to renegotiate a publishing contract Steinbeck signed in 1938.
However, in the most recent case, a judge overturned this ruling and returned the rights back to Penguin and Elaine’s heirs. In 1994, Steinbeck’s now-deceased third wife, Elaine, renegotiated his original contract with the publishing house, adding some earlier works. When Elaine died, she left her copyright interests to her children and grandchildren from a previous marriage, excluding Steinbeck’s two sons and their heirs. Per the 1994 agreement and the successful appeal, Penguin will now return to publishing the titles, which includes The Red Pony; Tortilla Flat; Of Mice and Men (both the novella and play); and The Grapes of Wrath.
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