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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  1. identicon
    Michael, 20 Feb 2009 @ 10:47pm

    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.

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