Will The Supreme Court Give Steinbeck's Heirs Back The Rights To Some Of His Works?

from the watch-this-space dept

Michael Scott points us to an interesting discussion over whether or not the Surpreme Court will take on a case concerning whether or not the rights on certain John Steinbeck books should be returned to his heirs. There have been a series of cases involving similar challenges. A quick summary is that copyright law in the US has long held the right for the original creators to terminate earlier grants of their copyright at certain defined periods of time. Basically, the reasoning was that early on in a content creator’s career, they may need to grant the copyright to a large company (publisher, studio, etc.), but later on, after a certain amount of value is established, they should have the right to reclaim the copyright from whoever they granted it to. This seems problematic on a whole variety of levels, but it’s the law.

With changes to copyright law in 1976 and again in 1998, this right was once again reiterated — along with a clause saying that this right to terminate such grants exists “notwithstanding any agreement to the contrary.” The reasoning, supposedly, was that this would stop powerful publishers/studios from getting content creators to sign away such termination rights (which had happened prior to 1976). This has resulted in a series of lawsuits, where heirs of old content creators are trying to reclaim the rights to certain content. Some of the famous cases have involved the characters Superman and the dog Lassie.

The latest battle involves Steinbeck’s heirs, and their desire to regain control of certain Steinback works — mainly for the purpose of selling the movie rights. Different circuit courts have ruled in somewhat contradictory ways on the issue — which is the sort of thing that is helpful in getting the Supreme Court interested.

That said, it’s difficult to see either side having much in the way of moral high ground here. Historically, this wouldn’t even be an issue, because the works of Steinbeck should be public domain material by now — under the terms of copyright when he wrote them. The fact that they’re not in the public domain is a huge travesty, and makes the squabbling over which individuals or organizations (who had nothing to do with the actual content in question) should get to profit from these works particularly silly.

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Comments on “Will The Supreme Court Give Steinbeck's Heirs Back The Rights To Some Of His Works?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Sour Grapes of Wrath Eaten by Mice and Men

So, tell me again why the Heirs are entitled to anything.

If my great grandfather built a house and sold it, could I make a claim on the house seventy years later?

Well, gee – I didn’t realize it would become such a famous house with people making movies about it and stuff. Otherwise I would’ve asked for more money when I sold it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Mr. Sheffner at Copyrights and Campaigns published an article on 2/17 that discusses the case. It provides a wealth of information, and by following the links he provides one is able to read the Petition for Certiorari filed by John Steinbeck’s son and grandchild. They are asking the Supreme Court to interpret a section of copyright law that has been interpreted differently by the Second and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeal, i.e., what is the proper construction of a term in 17 USC 304 that talks about “notwithstanding any agreement to the contrary” as it pertains to termination rights by a copyright holder.

It is a highly technical issue, but one that has significance to pre-2978 copyright holders, and especially those holders who are eligible to qualify for extended copyright terms under the Copyright Term Extension Act (the so-called “Sonny Bono Act”).

Of course, the Supreme Court has the discretion to determine whether or not to hear the case. Hence, Steinbeck’s son and grandchild have retained Ted Olson, the former US Solicitor General and husband of one of the 9/11 vicims of the aircraft that crashed into the Pentagon. As the Solicitor General, Mr. Olson was the USG’s point man for arguing cases before the Supreme Court, and has done so on innumerable occasions.

A decision on their petition is still many months away, and will likely draw numerous amicus briefs.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“It is a highly technical issue, “

Oooooh … I am very impressed.
It is a highly technical issue.
I’m probably too stupid to understand it.

So – seventy years ago my greatgrandfather wrote a story.
He then sold the story
And now I want to be paid for my greatgrandfathers work.

Yes, I am too stupid to understand the complexities of the situation …

ahem …. phhhttttt

CCRyder says:

Re: Re: Re:

Well the technical argument is a tort and contractual argument and pretty much everyone is too stupid to understand either of those, that’s the way lawyers like to write it, keeps them in a job.

As for your grandfather’s story, technically they didn’t buy his story, they rented it. Copyright agreements are inappropriately listed as sales. They are not. They are the legal publishing of ideas generated by the originator. Like patents, they exist as intellectual property until developed (in the case of a story, published) you retain the rights to the idea while the company reserves the rights to all publishing as the agreement holds. The law post 1978 provides for the ability to renegotiate, which is no different than the laws that allow for renegotiation of rental agreements after a significant change has occurred on a property, either the discovery of minerals or refurbishment. Not unlike property, back in the hey day of forced intellectual property conversion, the publishing and production companies would force writers into taking bad deals for their works. Many times stealing intellectual property outright and using the laws to their advantage. The legal change was a way to recoup from these disadvantageous deals. In many cases they would force authors to give them all rights and ownership for the price other authors were getting paid for contractual publishing. To think of this in terms of physical property they were buying the house for the price of one months rent. And if the author refused they weren’t above strong-arming or publishing freezes where they would have a gentleman’s agreement with all the other publishing houses to prevent some authors from publishing. The benefits of the law outweigh the problems.

Ross Nicholson (profile) says:

What about stolen copyrights?

I suggested the movie “Star Wars” be filmed from the story of a 1963 novella of similar name, “E.T.” is my concept, I provided the story for the movie Titanic, and three hundred more, the notes passed in “Good Will Hunting” are in my handwriting, as are notes in “Close Encounters”, “E.T.”, “K-PAX”, and “Dead Poets Society”, I am “Forrest Gump” and Yoda. “My” movies will eventually produced nearly 3 trillion dollars in economic benefit to the United States of America. I have done all that and much, much more for the sum total of $1.00 and 8 minicassette tapes (replacing the one I provided for the ‘cave solo’ in DPS). So does American copyright law need re-working? I’ll say it does. It needs criminal penalties and punitive damages for fraud.

Ross Nicholson (profile) says:

Re: What about stolen copyrights?

We could start with a legal system that devoted more than passing glances at simple justice and fawned less over maintaining the ill-gotten gains of sneaks and thieves. Look at my two letters in “Back to the Future” my palm print on the Borne flicks, what’s next? Relics? Are they worshipping my ammo bag from Saving Private Ryan? My dad’s old leather jacket in Indiana Jones? I’m disabled and living on minimum social security. Is that the legacy you want for this American era? That no one believed the easily demonstrated proof save only Almighty God? That’s what it looks like to me, and you’re all fools for your conniving complacency.

Ross Nicholson (profile) says:

Re: Re: What about stolen copyrights?

I will name names. William Jefferson “Bill” “Bubba” to his friends Clinton watched me. He even jumped in and modeled for Indiana Jones. And Hillary Clinton, did nobody notice that she is “princess Leah Organa of Aulderan’? Stevie Spielberg was there, of course, and that character is named after his momma. Look at the Clinton’s lawyer, Daniel Caffee? Strobe Talbot runs the Brookings Institution. Rob Reich was there, so was Ron Kirk, Ann Richards, Vince Foster, Marybeth Rogers, will they all take the truth to their graves with them? Forget the past, no matter who it destroys along the way? Surely one of these grand minds can remember something?
Justice, does it make any difference? Only if you want to stop crime, drug addiction, and sexual perversion in your lifetime, because I can do that. I have done that. It’s easy to fix people’s problems. It’s easy to be fair to people, too. Sometimes I think that nobody takes any interest out of fear, self-interest, or self-conceit. But may be it’s God. God does not reward the righteous, He enriches the pretentious, and forgives those who trespass against us and all things are in His way. Amen? Amen.

Michael (profile) says:

Shorter simpler copyrights

Clearly this shows that we need shorter, simpler copyrights. I don’t know what a good period of time would be, but I should think that 25 years is well more than sufficient incentive to produce and publish a work. Most items of old didn’t even have PRINT runs that lasted for that duration of time (Yes I’m arguing from casual observation; except for recognized classics, which have probably already sold a bundle of copies, how hard has it been to find an old book you wanted?).

If 25 years of monopoly on your work isn’t long enough, who do you think you are? If someone else has a similar idea and publishes it than the market seems to have good competition, ‘rip offs’ should be decided in the court of public opinion, infractions of that nature will either sell because they are a superior product (which should therefore win on merit), or cost those involved for trying to rip off consumers. It is literally the copying part, not the similarity part, which harms the market and incentive.

hegemon13 says:

Re: Shorter simpler copyrights

25 years would be fine with me, but I would even be okay with life of the author OR a set period (such as 25 years, or more like 17, the same as patents), whichever ends last. So, if an author publishes a book and dies a month later, his immediate family can still benefit from the work, and the publisher does not pocket all the profit. But, if they have already benefited for the 17 years prior to the author’s death, it goes immediately to public domain. Also, there are no extensions, renewals, etc. The 17 years is it, unless the author outlives the copyright.

Personally, I would choose to release older works to either the public domain or creative commons long before my death. As long as I was still writing, having older works read more widely could only help sales on future works.

ccryder says:

Re: Shorter simpler copyrights

Eh. Clearly you don’t know much about publishing, but that’s all right. I probably have little idea about a hundred businesses.

Of course a print run doesn’t last 25 years. If a print run lasted 25 years, that book is probably junk to begin with. In publishing a print run is the “edition” of the book. For a company to have a long print run would mean that its book is bad. For instance, any harlequin romance probably only has a single print run. Whereas Of Mice and Men was in it’s seventh edition within three years of it’s printing and because of the publishing business decision to change it’s practices there is no practical way to determine which edition we are in today. At best guess there are 8 current editions or print runs, and 23 that ran between 1980 and 1995. And at his death there were at least 15 editions making this year at minimum 46 editions of the book. That’s a pretty good run on a work. As for older books having short runs it depends on the work, the author, and yes even public opinion. Conan for instance had a very limited number of editions as it was a pulp novel, yet 50 years later it was sold as a movie. If Howard was still alive, by the rules of copyright back then, he would not have the right to his idea being used in a movie, whereas lengthy copyright laws made it possible if he had not killed himself to be paid for the movie rights.

Really no one loses with lengthy copyrights as most authors, if what they say is true, only sue within the first 5 years of their work. And there has been little or no success in suing for rights to works with similar themes or ideas. Literally copyright is meant to impede infringement where a publishing house steals your work outright, not when they publish similar works. The only people who have successfully sued and won when they sued for infringement by a competitor have sued when the competition exactly quotes an author, or if the copyright infringement coincided to trademark infringement like Dungeons and dragons during the eighties.

As for book print runs, of the 30,000 or so books being published yearly for public consumption, according to the press dockets for the big three publishing houses given to congress regarding copyrights, every single one of the non-mass markets will have at least three print runs, and 1/2 of the mass markets are themselves newer editions of older books, making the number of printed books with limited runs insignificant. And according to the same publishing houses for a highly praised book a publishing house may make a profit after 5 years. For most other works they do not see profits for 20-25 years. If copyright was shortened to 25 years it would not be profitable for most publishing companies to purchase the rights of 90% of the works they publish, meaning they would never purchase them.

Anonymous Coward says:

No matter what one may think of copyright law in general, and copyright terms in particular, it does not change the fact that there is a subsisting copyright in certain of John Steinbeck’s works. The issue here is who will “possess” the copyright, a corporate licensee or John Steinbeck’s heirs?

A concern leveled against copyright is that such rights, while originating with an author, are typically transferred to a corporation that exploits the copyright for what is now an incredibly long duration. Once transferred the author thereafter receives “diddly”. Termination rights, set forth at 17 USC 304, are intended to address this by providing an author or his heirs the opportunity to reclaim the copyright, providing them the potential of perhaps receiving a benefit in excess of “diddly”.

Brian Nth says:

Follow the Constitution

If the courts would follow the Constitution, it’s pretty clearly laid out that copyrights and other similar protections are in place strictly to encourage further innovation, creation and development in the arts and sciences. To the extent that the current laws do that then they should be upheld. On the other hand to the extent that the current laws subvert that they should be struck down.

Personally, I don’t see how giving grandchildren the right to profit from previously sold works follows along with the Constitution, but IANAL.

Pablo Rodríguez (user link) says:

similar situation in an EU country

I didn’t know about this story. But as a general matter, as long as a work is not in the public domain, I think is fine that the law protects authors against editors.

Spain has a statutory limit on the duration of publishing contracts, that cannot last longer than 15 years (and 10 years if the author doesn’t get a fixed amount of money, but a percentage of each work sold).

This has been so since the 1987 copyright reform in Spain. I guess this might be similar in other EU member states and I find it an excellent way to prevent abuses from editors. In fact, I have heard of a case (I’m not a lawyer myself) of a book published in Spain in 1982 (and so regulated by the old law) that got out of print and that the university could prevent publication until the work will pass into the public domain (the heirs will have to negotiate to be able to publish the book again). This abuse could have been avoided if the book would have been published after 1987.

Another interesting feature of such a provision is the ability to publish electronic editions of your work, when in the vast majority of cases, the work has no commercial life anymore.

Coozbain says:

creation of an original work

I think if an Author creates an original work then he/she should be able to sell the rights to it for up to 7 years. After seven years he/she can re-sell it to the same people or take back the rights. Upon his/her death it becomes public domain. Or maybe 20 years after the authors death.

I like this idea because once in public domain it would get a much broader audience. I don’t think Hemingways daughters should get royalties from “The Old Man and the Sea”. YY

Bo Digitally (profile) says:

Imbalanced Copyright Laws

Copyright Laws were created to help “the controllers” (the rich and their managers, lawyers) freely and “legally” earn a financial gain for as long as possible (they want to earn in perpetuity). I feel that the heirs should be able to regain the right to profit from the works of their deceased loved one. They could very well receive the same benefit while the ip creator is alive to share it with them, so why when the ip creator dies, should the work be a “public domain” work or why should lawyers and managers profit while the heirs are often times, left to struggle or worse, be legally separated from profiting from their loved ones legacy? The protection afforded by the Copyright act was simply designed out of the fact that most intellectual property creators are taken advantage of with unfair contracts early in their career. The law provides an opportunity for the ip creator and/or his/her heirs to reap some benefit where there would be none available had the law not been enacted.

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