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
    bshock, 23 Feb 2009 @ 9:12am


    I suspect that Steinbeck would find this legal action ridiculous at best, and disgusting on average.

    I recall in his autobiographical "Travels with Charlie," he wrote something about how he wasn't terribly concerned about his descendants' futures, with the implication being that they needed to get by on their own.

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