Supreme Court Not Interested In Dispute Over Steinbeck Heirs Trying To Reclaim Copyrights

from the shouldn't-these-works-all-be-in-the-public-domain? dept

A few years back, we noted the ongoing legal fight from some of John Steinbeck’s heirs seeking to regain control over the rights to some of his works via the termination provisions in US copyright law that we’ve talked about a lot recently, and which are going to get even more attention in the near future, as lots of classic works get close to hitting the point where they can be “terminated” and taken back by the artist (or their estate) from whomever the rights were assigned to.

It appears that the case is now over, with the Supreme Court refusing to hear the case, meaning the heirs are unable to recover the works. The issue was that Steinbeck’s third wife apparently had worked out an agreement not to terminate, but Steinbeck’s son and grandson sought to get around that… and lost.

Of course, the whole thing really demonstrates the ridiculousness of such long copyrights. By any traditional measure, the works being fought over would be in the public domain by now (for a long, long time already), such that anyone could build off of them. It’s a sad state of affairs that people are still in court today arguing over a book from 1938, when the author himself is long dead. Ah, the “legacy” of copyright.

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Comments on “Supreme Court Not Interested In Dispute Over Steinbeck Heirs Trying To Reclaim Copyrights”

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TechnoMage (profile) says:

How dare you Mike

Think of the poor starving Artist’s family, how would an author’s grandchildren be able to make money off of a work their grandfather wrote if it weren’t for Copyright’s continual extension?

How dare you not be concerned for future grandchildren who would miss out on the ability to profit from, or expand upon their grandfather’s works.

Anonymous Coward says:

After reading this, I thought, “What if Congress were pressured into passing a law requiring any and all works to automatically pass into public domain on the death of the author?”
Would Big Media hire fitness instructors for everyone that works for them? Would they build cryogenic storage chambers, and keep their authors on ice indefinitely? Does Walt Disney’s brain in a jar count as being “alive”?

Anonymous Coward says:

Damage To Scholarship

With the current ridiculously long copyright terms, academics cannot write the scholarly works they would like to write, because they would have to negotiate with the estate. The estate is going to want money and veto power, of course. The academics do not have the money and they will never accept the veto power. So the scholarly work gets delayed.

By the time that copyright law finally gets out of the way, everybody directly involved with the original work, is long dead. All the now long-dead author’s friends and associates are also long dead. The information in those brains is just gone forever. That is why the founding fathers put “for limited Times” in the constitution. That is a limited time compared to a human lifetime. 20% of three score years and ten is probably about right.

Isn’t it a shame that the present crop of congress critters think they know better than the founding fathers?

Anonymous Coward says:

Walt Disney

It is Monday morning at 9.00am. Junior clerical assistant Maisie Smith turns on the Brain Communicator.

Maisie: Hi Walt, you still alive?

Walt: Yes, you scumbags. You know perfectly well how boring it is here in this jar. I’ve been here 200 years and still you won’t turn me off. How about you get me some eyes that actually work? How about you hook me up to a TV?

Maisie: Sorry Walt, none of that stuff has been invented yet. Talk to you next week.

Maisie turns off the Brain Communicator for another week.

Anonymous Coward says:

Damage To Scholarship

Perhaps off the point of this discussion, but why is it accepted wisdom that the founding fathers knew better than the current crop in congress?

From my reading of history, the founding fathers were held in much the same levels of esteem by some of the people they represented as the current set are today, i.e., not a lot!

I accept there were some of the founding fathers were remarkable individuals, but politics is about the art of the possible and I wonder if the current congress were tasked with drafting a new constitution would they draft something that 200 years of hindsight would assign “wisdom” to?

More related to the discussion – if we concede that copyright should outlive the original holder/creator, then how should we determine the right length of time – why would 35 years be any more sensible than 10 or 100?

Anonymous Coward says:

More related to the discussion – if we concede that copyright should outlive the original holder/creator, then how should we determine the right length
of time – why would 35 years be any more sensible than 10 or 100?

Or 1000, 2000 or 10000.
Copyright should never extend beyond the natural lifetime of the creator.

If Congress may extend copyright even retroactively, all classical works could be re-copyrighted only for the benefit of the heirs of men dead centuries ago.
Such a result can’t and shouldn’t be consistent with the Constitution’s limited time clause.

Chargone (profile) says:


if memory serves, this was tossed out as a bad idea to avoid incentives to commit murder.
(seriously, given the stupidity that corporations get up to now, what makes you think they Wouldn’t hire assassins if it looked to be the most profitable rout?)
corporations like to have works locked up under their control where only they can exploit them, rather than in the public domain, but they’d rather have them in the public domain where, again, they can exploit them, than locked up under someone Else’s control, where they can’t.

that and an author’s natural lifetime is just way too freaking long in a lot of cases.

Chargone (profile) says:

Damage To Scholarship

way i figure it, the only reason copyright should outlast the author is because he died unusually soon after publication… and then only because otherwise it wouldn’t take long before someone saw the profit in having the author murdered for access to his works. for this reason, it’s also probably not smart to say ‘death of author +x years’ either. even ‘x years or death of author +y’ is problematic, where if it is ‘whichever is shorter’ you’re back to that murder issue depending on how x and y compare, and for ‘whichever is longer’ you’re back to where we are now. much less problematic to have a straight fixed time limit.

there’s some research (been mentioned here before) that indicates that there might be some point in copyright for five or ten years (i forget which) after publication, and after that financial gain for the creators is limited at best even with it. based on this, it seems that after ten years it serves mostly to limit further creation without any redeeming factors.

so, logically, it seems to me, copyright should last no more than ten years (more logically, opt in, pay, get five years, and if you want after five pay a heck of a lot more for another five, one time only), and if the author dies before that period expires, the monopoly right for the work should be treated as part of his estate until such time as it expires. this isn’t That much of a problem when you’re looking at a short copyright period. the problem is when the copyright lasts a very long time, the owner is actually a corporation (as is the case with movies and games), Especially when the owner is not actually the author, and… well, then you get this sort of sillyness.

Richard (profile) says:


corporations like to have works locked up under their control where only they can exploit them, rather than in the public domain, but they’d rather have them in the public domain where, again, they can exploit them, than locked up under someone Else’s control, where they can’t.

No – they would rather have them locked up than in the public domain, period.

You see most of this stuff is just held under lock and key so that it doesn’t compete with new works. The corporations act as a cartel and if one of their number tried to release stuf to the public doamin then the others would actually complain.

Richard (profile) says:

Damage To Scholarship and unfairness in inheritance taxes

My problem with copyrights is that they don’t seem to be properly taxed. The rest of us poor suckers pay 40% death duties (in the UK) on anything we pass on to our kids (above about ?500K) yet copyrights seem to escape this (they must do otherwise the rights to many works would surely belong to the government in lieu of tax by now).

How come this special privilege escapes taxation when the fruits of hard graft are taxed at 40%?

Anonymous Coward says:


I think though you miss a small issue, called the corporate entity. Disney is a great example, a company that holds the copyright to much is still here, and likely will still be here for a long time. Corporate-wise, they will not die any time soon. Granting them “lifetime” status would mean that none of you could whine about Mickey Mouse,because he would be covered pretty much forever.

You wouldn’t want to give up that whining, would you?

BuzzCoastin (profile) says:

This is the beginning?from “I” to “we”. If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I”, and cuts you off forever from the “we”.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

anymouse (profile) says:

Damage To Scholarship

The founding fathers had a ‘clean’ political climate where they only had to deal with their own self interests and the self interests of the other ‘politicians’. They could look at what had been done before in England and decide that there were better ways to do things, which is what they set out to document.

If George W. and Thomas J. would have had to deal with ‘lobbiests’ and ‘corporate interests’ (above and beyond their own) throwing wagon loads of cash at them, we might have had an entirely different constitution. As it was they were pretty free to get high and contemplate the ‘better ways’ to do things, which is what they drafted in the constitution.

Do I think a bunch of cross dressing, wig wearing, dope smoking, ex-patriots (from England) had more wisdom then our current crop of congress critters? Definitely, they had more wisdom in their little finger (the one they held out and wiggled when they were drinking their tea) than the entire crop of ‘corporate stooges’ that are in power today.

USA… the best government Corporations can Buy….

Chosen Reject (profile) says:


I really wish this murder business would be murdered in its own right. No one is going to get murdered over a copyrighted work any more than people are going to get murdered over the coca-cola formula.

Let’s use Rowling and Harry Potter as an example.
1) Rowling retains the rights to Harry Potter for a set amount of time. During this period, her competitors will have to come up with something else to compete. This is as things go today.
2) Rowling retains the rights to Harry Potter until she dies.
2a) Competitors will have to create something else to compete, which is the same as today.
2b) Competitor(s) have her murdered so they can…what? What benefit do they gain? It’d be in the public domain so anyone can publish it, including Project Gutenberg and The Pirate Bay, and everyone on any given p2p network and Amazon (which gives out public domain kindle books for the whopping revenue generating price of free). So in addition to her competitors having to create something to earn the dollars of consumers, they’ll have to do so while competing with free, which only makes their job harder.

Let’s give it a rest already. No one is going to get murdered so that their works enter the public domain earlier.

dwg says:


Corporations do kill on purpose–it’s called “cost-benefit analysis” and it leads to things like airlines running multiple regressions to determine how much they’ll have to pay out annually, valuing each crash death at $1MM USD and multiplying that by a foreseeable number of such deaths. Ford did it with the Pinto when it determined that a fix costing several dollars, multiplied by the number of Pintos produced was more than the estimated payouts in wrongful death lawsuits.

Corporations don’t need to hire assassins–they are assassins. Or maybe “mercenaries” is more appropriate.

dwg says:


Sadly, the SCOTUS has determined otherwise. It ain’t in the Constitution, but it sure is ensconced in Constitutional Law. Just for example:

In Louisville, C. & C.R. Co. v. Letson, 43 US 497 (1844), the SCOTUS held that for the purposes of the case at hand, a corporation is “capable of being treated as a citizen of [the State which created it], as much as a natural person.” Ten years later, the Court reaffirmed the result of Letson, though on the somewhat different theory that “those who use the corporate name, and exercise the faculties conferred by it,” should be presumed conclusively to be citizens of the corporation’s State of incorporation. Marshall v. Baltimore & Ohio R. Co., 57 US 314 (1854).

dwg says:


As below with Corps/People, here the Copyright Act deems corporations (among others) “authors” of “works made for hire.” So any work made by an employee within the scope of his or her employment (and not subject to an express agreement to the contrary) is “authored” by the employer–often a corporation. There are other types of “works made for hire,” too, but not relevant here.

tetron (profile) says:

It seems increasingly likely with ongoing indefinite extension of copyright terms past the length of multiple human lifetimes that works copyrighted today will only enter the public domain in the USA as a result of government revolution or collapse rendering current law void or irrelevant. So start stocking up your fallout shelters will all the pirated movies you want!

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