Heirs Sue to Regain Steinbeck Rights

The copyrights for John Steinbeck's classic works are under dispute. Two relatives are suing Penguin Books to get back the rights after Steinbeck's deceased third wife willed them to non-Steinbeck family members.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat - they are among the iconic works of American literature. Now, a federal judge says those works, and others by John Steinbeck, belong to his son and granddaughter. They want to end copyrights held for decades by the publisher, Penguin Books. NPR's Nova Safo has more.

NOVA SAFO reporting:

In 2003, Elaine Steinbeck, John Steinbeck's third wife, died. In her will, she gave rights to his works to a number of heirs, none of whom were blood relatives.

Mark Lee is the lawyer for Steinbeck's son, Thomas, and granddaughter, Blake Smyle. They filed suit in 2004 to get back copyrights to 10 of Steinbeck's early works.

Mr. MARK LEE (Attorney for Steinbeck Descendants): Copyright law recognizes that an author's blood heirs have certain rights which cannot be taken away by will or otherwise.

SAFO: Penguin Books disagreed. It has published Steinbeck's works for almost 70 years, and it had a deal with Elaine Steinbeck to continue doing so. But a judge, last week, said federal law is on the side of the blood heirs. Publishing control over the 10 works will revert back to them over a period of eight years, starting next month with Steinbeck's first novel, Cup of Gold.

Penguin says it will appeal the ruling, calling it the first round in what's sure to be a long battle.

Nova Safo, NPR News.

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