Earlier this year, we wrote about a lawsuit
involving John Steinbeck's heirs and their attempt to regain the copyright on his works. The specifics of the case were very, very much inside baseball, having to do with interpretations of certain changes to copyright law. The specifics aren't really worth bothering with here (though you can drill down if you want to know). The news this week was that the Supreme Court rejected the appeal by Steinbeck's heirs, meaning that the appeals court ruling stands and the heirs don't get the copyrights back. However, what struck me as most interesting was the statement those heirs released
John Steinbeck's granddaughter, Blake Smyle said, "This is about family. My grandfather would be deeply saddened to know that his contributions are now in the hands of strangers."
Mr. Steinbeck vows to continue to seek proper delegation of his father's legacy and to press forward on behalf of the families of other authors similarly situated to his position.
"If artists and their families cannot protect their rights, then everyone will ultimately suffer."
Now... that all sounds good and righteous, but is completely misleading. After all, if copyright law hadn't been changed and copyright extended greatly, Steinbeck's works would be in the public domain by now (actually, quite some time ago). In fact, as far as Steinbeck knew, both at the time he wrote his works and
at the time of his death in 1968, almost everything he wrote would be in the public domain by now (some of his later works would likely still be covered, but the vast majority would be public domain). So, I find it odd to have his heirs claiming that he'd be "deeply saddened to know that his contributions are now in the hands of strangers." After all, he would have expected exactly that. That also makes the final quote hard to square with reality as well. Steinbeck knew the deal he was making with the public domain when he wrote his works. In fact, most of his works shouldn't be protected at all any more. So how can his heirs claim that everyone will suffer if those works aren't protected?