Judge Overturns Ruling on Rights to Steinbeck's Titles

By Shannon G RSS Wed, August 27, 2008

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 FlatOf Mice and Men (both the novella and play); and The Grapes of Wrath.

Do you agree with the most recent ruling? Let us know who you think should hold the rights to works of deceased writers by leaving your opinion in the Feedback section.

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Did Steinbeck leave a will? How did Elaine gain control and have the right to sign contracts on Steinbeck's behalf. Also according to copyright law all works before 1923 are in the public domain at the same time the law says works are protected for 75 years Steinbeck is now deceased for more than 75 years. Philippine Lawyer
Dave - Manila
Saturday, September 27, 2008

Why didn't the widow leave some of her estate to Steinbeck's two kids? Unless there's something I don't know, that seems remarkably ungrateful and callous. These are Steinbeck's kids too, after all.
Kevin - Los Angeles, CA
Sunday, September 28, 2008

Steinbeck is one of the best writers of our time, this is a great book. Articles about Steinbeck
Dominic - Colorado
Monday, September 29, 2008

This issue is a common one with second marriages and applies to all property owned by the deceased person regardless of whether it is copyright, contracts, money, real estate or anything. When one marries another, then all of his property and rights will transfer pursuant to his will. One of the most common problems is that children from older marriages get disinherited if not mentioned in the will. I personally think children of older marriages lose out but this is the way the inheritance and wills laws work. One planning method is to transfer property and contract rights like Steinbeck's contract to a and give children passive ownership of the LLC. This would have had to occur during Stenbeck's life so it would not apply to him because the LLC is a newer legal entity under the law. . . but this is a planning method recent authors can use with their copyrights and contract rights.
Amy - Richmond
Thursday, October 16, 2008

That is some kind of federal ruling; that publishers can't take advantage of writer's before knowing whether or not the book will be a success. Hard to say whether it is right for the heirs to be able to renegotiate or get some rights back. On the one hand, the publishers are taking a risk in the beginning. On the other hand, the author and heirs have the potential of "selling out" for pennies on the dollar their future fortunes. Just hard to say. -David G.
David - Portland
Thursday, November 20, 2008

Wow, that is a twisted story! I would say the rights should belong to Steinbeck's family. He wrote it, and even though the publishing company had a major hand in the release, the pre-1930s ruling tells me thats where it should go.
Jeff - Springfield
Sunday, December 7, 2008

I think the rights should stay within the family and not go to the publisher. I don't think a company or corporation should have control over something as creative as this - it should remain with the family. What's next, are they going to try to allocate Steinbeck's to Penguin? I don't think so!
John - Lincoln
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

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John - Lincoln
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I would be curious to know if he left a will and if so what was in it. Hard to believe the family lost. Tanya
Tanya - Example: Florida
Monday, March 30, 2009

Eventually the works will enter the public domain anyway. I think a contract is a contract, and what's important is that his wonderful books get distributed as freely as possible. The book rights cannot just be passed down as part of his estate, considering Penguin paid in the first place. That would leave many publishers vulnerable. New laws should take care of this, I hope.
Michael - Montreal, Quebec
Monday, July 13, 2009

Steinbecks' Will should be the sole document that reflects the decission that the judge should consider. The answer would be within this paper. The new wife's document should be disallowed. She is not the author. If there was no will then the courts should consider all parties and relatives.
Anne - Phila
Wednesday, September 2, 2009

There are so many things that we don't know about this issue. What did the will say? What was in the contract? What was the relationship between the people involved? And the list goes on, but I do have to say, eventhough the court goes one way or the other, doesn't mean that the court is always right, but quite possibly it appears so at the time, depending on the circumstances.
Larry - Grayson
Sunday, September 13, 2009

I believe that the actual heirs of Steinbeck should be able to renegotiate the contract, because the economy is a lot different now and they should be fairly compensated for their father's works. I love the Grapes of Wrath, and Bruce Springsteen even wrote a song about it called "The Ghost of Tom Joad."
James - Los Angeles, CA
Thursday, January 7, 2010

I think it's a good decision if Steinbeck's heirs get the rights to renegotiate their contract as they feel is fair. http://site.mindbodyspirit.me
trey - costa mesa, ca
Thursday, January 7, 2010

I am like a couple other comments that they should stay within the family and certainly not to the publisher. The only way a company or corp should have the rights is if they pay and individual to own them. Also, they should only go to blood relatives and not extended family (I believe).
Marshal - Philadelphia
Sunday, February 28, 2010

I am like a couple other comments that they should stay within the family and certainly not to the publisher. The only way a company or corp should have the rights is if they pay and individual to own them. ..Also, they should only go to blood relatives and not extended family.
Marshal - Philadelphia
Sunday, February 28, 2010

Wow that is very interesting. I had no idea what they did with deceased authors wealth.
Phil Burgundy - NJ
Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sorry my bad English. I`m from Ukraine. Nice Post. I'm still waiting for CKEditor on the iPad, is it fixed yet? Thanks for all you do with the editor, and for proactively spreading the word on supporting those in need. With respect xxdevil.
xxdevil - Ukrain
Friday, March 16, 2012