June 15 – June 22, 2006 Edition

Steinbeck’s Heirs
Win Control of Rights,
Penguin Due to Appeal

NEW YORK, NY/6/12/06—The late author John Steinbeck’s son and granddaughter won a U.S. District Court battle this month to get control of the publishing rights for 10 Steinbeck novels from the author’s publisher, Penguin Group USA. Judge Richard Owen ruled that Thomas Steinbeck and Blake Smyle have the right to renegotiate rights to the works whose value has increased since the original book contract was signed.

Lloyd Jassin, attorney for the heirs, explained the complicated copyright issue to Authorlink this way: “Even though a publishing contract says it is for the life of the copyright, that isn’t necessarily the case. Under the Copyright Act, a copyright owner (or his or her heirs) can terminate publishing contracts, film options, and other grants or licenses (made prior to 1978) beginning on the 56th year after that contract was signed.

“This allows authors to benefit from laws that extended the term of copyright from 56 years to 95 years. That is, this law gives authors and their heirs a second bite of the juicy royalty apple; a second chance to make a better deal. If you miss termination at the end of the 56th year, there is a second opportunity at the end of the 75th year to recapture the final 19 years of copyright. Even if you attempt to waive this right. Even if your contract says that the contract is for the life of the copyright, the contract is terminable—provided the notice of termination is given at the proper time to the proper parties by the proper parties.”

Simply put, the author or his/her heirs have two chances to terminate licenses, but they have to send a proper notice within a specific window of time tied to 56 or 75 years after the work was copyrighted.

Penguin is expected to appeal the ruling. The publisher’s Maureen Donnelly said in a statement to the media that the court decision is but the first round in what will be a long and complicated process. “Some of Steinbeck’s classics published by Penguin are affected by this decision; the purported terminations will not take effect for most of them for many years in the future.”

Among the works affected by the decision are Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Red Pony. Penguin has had a long-standing agreement with Steinbeck’s estate to release the works. But now the heirs want to renegotiate the deals for the properties.