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.

Filed Under: copyright, heirs, john steinbeck, termination

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  1. identicon
    ccryder, 18 May 2009 @ 12:08pm

    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.

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