John Steinbeck & the Cost of Centurial Copyright Protection

John Steinbeck passed away in 1968, leaving behind a litigious set of heirs who have fought over the right to control his literary work for decades. The most recent iteration of this legal battle, this time between Steinbeck’s daughter-in-law and Steinbeck’s stepdaughter, ended with a jury award of $13.15 million to the stepdaughter.

Here’s the backstory:

  • Through his will, Steinbeck left ownership of the copyrights he renewed in his lifetime to his wife and a $50,000 trust to each of his two sons (from a previous marriage).
  • By law, Steinbeck’s wife as well as his sons were entitled to royalty payments for the works renewed after his death (the law required publication/registration and permitted renewal back then; it’s different now).
  • A 1983 settlement agreement 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, turning it into royalty-generating movies, spin-offs, etc).
  • Steinbeck’s wife died in 2003, leaving ownership/control of the copyrights to her heirs, including Steinbeck’s step-daughter.

In the most recent litigation, the step-daughter alleged that the son and daughter-in-law thwarted attempts to turn Steinbeck’s works into royalty-generating projects, including new movies (projects that purportedly interested Steven Spielberg and Jennifer Lawrence).

The jury sided with the step-daughter, and the daughter-in-law has stated she will appeal. After that, let’s hope the battle over the copyrights to Steinbeck’s work will finally come to an end. Unfortunately, it’s possible that new legal issues will arise among the heirs until John Steinbeck’s work falls into the public domain, a date that the law has pushed back numerous times since Steinbeck’s death.

Based on the law at the time Steinbeck wrote his novels, when authors were entitled to two consecutive 28-year-terms of copyright protection (56 years total), his books would be in the public domain by now. However, the 1976 amendments to the Copyright Act changed the copyright period for Steinbeck’s novels to 75 years. Then, in 1998, for works still within the 75-year-period, amendments to the law extended copyright protection by another twenty years. The extension was challenged as unconstitutional but, in 2003, the Supreme Court upheld it 7-2 in Eldred v. Ashcroft. The result is 95 years–nearly a century–of copyright protection.

Think of all the judicial resources our courts would’ve saved had Steinbeck’s works entered the public domain after 56 years instead of 95? Think of all the derivative works–the retellings, the new movies–we could’ve enjoyed by now?

Oppressively long copyright protection does nothing more than stifle creative derivative works and enrich heirs who often have merely a tangential relationship to the person who created the work. As Justice Breyer wrote in his dissent in Eldred:

[A]ny remaining monetary incentive is diminished dramatically by the fact that the relevant royalties will not arrive until 75 years or more into the future, when, not the author, but distant heirs, or shareholders in a successor corporation, will receive them. … What potential Shakespeare, Wharton, or Hemingway would be moved by such a sum? What monetarily motivated Melville would not realize that he could do better for his grandchildren by putting a few dollars into an interest-bearing bank account?

With Steinbeck’s books, we may finally see more derivative projects develop, but only if the creators of those projects are willing and able to pay the price Steinbeck’s wife’s heirs want for it.