Court: Steinbeck Heirs Don't Have Publishing Rights

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A federal appeals court has reversed a ruling that awarded John Steinbeck's son and granddaughter publishing rights to 10 of the author's early works, including The Grapes of Wrath.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

An appeals court has ruled that the son and granddaughter of novelist John Steinbeck do not own the rights to some of the writer's best-known works.

Steinbeck's heirs have been fighting over the copyrights for years, and we have more this morning from NPR's Laura Sydell.

LAURA SYDELL: Steinbeck's son, Thomas, and his granddaughter, Blake Smyle, brought a suit in federal court over four years ago, alleging that there had been a 30-year conspiracy to deprive them of the rights of their legacy.

Steinbeck's estate had been in the hands of his third wife, Elaine, until she died in 2003. The couple were married for 18 years but never had any children of their own. Steinbeck's blood heirs are fighting over 10 early works that include "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Of Mice and Men."

All in all, Stanford Law Professor Paul Goldstein says there's a lot of money at stake.

Professor PAUL GOLDSTEIN (Stanford Law School): We're talking about significant works whose copyright will go well into the century, into 2034, 2032 or thereabouts, and that's a fair chunk of royalties.

SYDELL: The case hinges on an intricate aspect of copyright law that allows artists and their descendents to terminate earlier contracts. In this case, it involves a deal that Elaine Steinbeck made with Penguin Books, which is also a party chasing the lucrative royalties of Steinbeck's books.

Steinbeck's blood heirs won the case in a federal district court, but a U.S. court of appeals overturned that ruling. "Grapes of Wrath," which was published in 1939, remains part of the canon of great American literature.

An attorney for Steinbeck's son and granddaughter says they will likely appeal the decision. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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