And, Now, A Case Totally Destined For Appeal

June 13th, 2006 · No Comments
by Booksquare

We find our attention diverted by a rather interesting little pieces from BBC News where we are told the John Steinbeck’s children from a first marriage have been awarded rights to his novels and — apparently — two pictures produced by Paramount. Something about:

US District Judge Richard Owen said US copyright laws now recognised young writers like Steinbeck could not “predict the high stature they would attain” when they signed early contracts.

The law permits authors or their heirs to terminate contracts or renegotiate deals “allowing creators or their heirs appropriate rewards for their artistic gifts to our culture,” he said.

At first blush, this appears to be similar to cases being fought by early jazz and blues musicians who turned over the rights to all of their work to unscrupulous publishers, receiving mere pittances in return. Something tells us that while mere pittances were not involved here, a transfer of rights was done in a less-than-overboard fashion. The part about the motion pictures is baffling as, unless Steinbeck paid for production out of his own pocket, he would, at best, be entitled to an ongoing participation interest, maybe retroactive residuals if he had a creative role and the judge decided to stretch that rule. He could own the underlying work, but not the actual production.

According to the Associated Press, the titles involved are:

The judge awarded the rights to the following works to Thomas Steinbeck and Smyle: “Cup of Gold,” “The Pastures of Heaven,” “The Red Pony,” “To a God Unknown,” “Tortilla Flat,” “In Dubious Battle,” “Of Mice and Men” (both the novel and the play), “The Long Valley” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Though this case appears to be a straight issue of copyright, there is the open question of the right of inheritance. And, if you’re a publisher, an open question of how and when a copyright holder or heir can make the determination to yank rights and renegotiate agreements. After all, like Steinbeck, most authors cannot predict how successful their work will ultimately become. While we certainly have our issues with long-term copyright and, sigh, royalty rates, we also find this notion a bit loosy-goosy for our taste. This may be why we shunned the law in favor of creative accounting.

Otherwise, the Steinbeck kids, if we may, will be positioned to exploit their rights to his works starting in about 2012. Yeah, the lack of immediacy has us scratching our confused little head as well.

[tags]copyright, books, publishing, john steinbeck[/tags]

File Under: Our Continuing Fascination With Copyright