Steinbeck Lawsuit: The Case Drags On

A few months ago, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit told John Steinbeck’s heirs that a decades-old feud over control of Steinbeck’s works, resulting in many years of litigation, must be “over for good.”

But this month, Steinbeck’s daughter-in-law has signaled that it is not. On January 2, 2020, her counsel filed a petition to extend time to appeal the case to the United States Supreme Court

This case stems from a 1983 settlement of earlier litigation between Steinbeck’s sons and his wife that increased the sons’ share of the royalty payments in exchange for giving Steinbeck’s wife control over the exploitation of the copyright (which means the right to license the work to third parties). After Steinbeck’s wife and sons passed away, their heirs took up the battle. Steinbeck’s stepdaughter (the wife’s daughter) claimed that the son and the daughter-in-law blocked efforts to turn Steinbeck’s works into royalty-generating projects, including new movies.

In 2017, the wife’s daughter won a jury award of $5.25 million in compensatory damages (to cover the loss the stepdaughter incurred as a result of the daughter-in-law’s actions) and $7.9 million in punitive damages (to punish the daughter-in-law for interfering with the movie negotiations). 

On appeal, the 9th Circuit panel, in an opinion full of Steinbeck quotes (PDF), affirmed the compensatory damages but vacated the punitive damages. The court also affirmed the lower court’s summary judgment decision in favor of the wife’s daughter and affirmed the court’s striking of the daughter-in-law’s defenses on the basis of collateral estoppel (a doctrine that prohibits a party from relitigating an issue). And more. I suggest you read the 9th Circuit opinion (linked above) for a more complete understanding of the nightmarish procedural history and facts of this case, which continues despite the 9th Circuit’s conclusion that “this dispute is indeed over.”

The daughter-in-law received an extension to file a petition with the Supreme Court, making the deadline March 10, 2020 (here’s the docket). Based on the petition for an extension, it looks like she’s going to challenge the 9th Circuit’s application of collateral estoppel, arguing that the issue of whether copyright law makes the 1983 Agreement unenforceable has not been “actually litigated and actually decided” before.

Whatever the outcome of this case, it’s little more than a sad byproduct of bloated copyright protection for the heirs of long-dead authors. As I’ve said before: “The Grapes of Wrath was published eighty years ago, and the current litigation is between people who had nothing to do with its creation.” Our expansive copyright laws allow heirs to sap our judicial resources and enjoy the free advertising that comes with keeping their ancestor’s name in the spotlight.

Meanwhile, a number of John Steinbeck’s personal items are going up for auction next month, giving the public an opportunity to bid on strands of Steinbeck’s hair at 25 months or a trash can resembling an elephant’s foot. Would you want any of this stuff? I would not.

2 comments

  1. I get so confused by copyright law, even though I try to understand. As you know, Mickey Mouse should be in the public domain, but he is one of the most guarded images in history, all because he’s a money-making machine of a doodle. What is it, exactly, that allows people to not follow the copyright law that gives a limitation on how long it can be owned and not public domain? Is it just so much precedence set up that now there are loop holes?

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