Terminating Termination Rights: Steinbeck’s Heirs Denied Publishing Rights to Great Literary Works

Terminating Termination Rights: Steinbeck’s Heirs Denied Publishing Rights to Great Literary Works

Deliberate betrayal…a family torn apart in a quest for what is believed to be rightfully theirs.  Although it sounds like a teaser for one of John Steinbeck’s classic novels, the drama that unfolded in a New York courtroom in late August was straight out of the pages of the Steinbeck family feud.  On August 13, 2008, a Federal Appeals Court reversed the decision of a New York District Court that gave the publishing rights of several of Steinbeck’s works to Steinbeck’s son and granddaughter.

The dispute arose in 2004 when Steinbeck’s heirs brought a notice to terminate the publication grants stemming from an agreement made in 1938 between Steinbeck and what was then The Viking Press.  The action was brought pursuant to s. 304 (c) and (d) of the Copyright Act, 17, U.S.C. (The Act).  Essentially, these provisions provide a right for certain family members to terminate prior grants of transfers or licenses of copyright to ensure that the subsequent commercial success of an author is not exploited. 

The twist in this story lies in the fact that Steinbeck had bequeathed his interests in the copyright to his widow. Subsequently, in 1994, Ms. Steinbeck renegotiated the terms of the 1938 contract with Penguin Publishers, and in effect, the court found, dissolved the very agreement Steinbeck’s heirs were seeking to terminate. Given that the 1994 agreement superseded the original agreement, the court found the termination notice invalid, and thus restored the rights to Penguin Publishers and the heirs of Ms. Steinbeck-none of whom are related to Steinbeck himself.

The decision ultimately leaves important decision making powers in the hands of, arguably, strangers to the original copyright holder.  I can appreciate that some may find this decision particularly troubling given that Steinbeck’s living heirs were parties to the suit. Further concern lies in the face of allegations that Ms. Steinbeck deliberately excluded the Steinbeck’s sons from her will.  In a similar vein, the decision can be seen as going against the termination rights provided to family members in the Act.

However, it is important to keep in mind that the decision actually upholds the wishes of Steinbeck.  Steinbeck left $50,000 to both of his sons.  He did not split the copyright interest with his children, but rather chose to leave the interest to his wife, and as a result, left the power with her to decide who would receive those rights after her passing. It is clear that Steinbeck contemplated the extension of his copyright interest, and did contemplate his sons into the equation.  

Further, as noted, the termination provisions in the Act serve to even out the power imbalance inherent in any agreement made in the early stages of one’s career.  Ms. Steinbeck’s 1994 agreement specifically served this purpose as economic terms were renegotiated to reflect Steinbeck’s increased fame.  If Steinbeck’s heirs, however, wanted to exercise their termination rights for reasons other than those contemplated by the Act…it's likely that the story of the Steinbeck saga is far from its conclusion.