Of penguins and mice

Yesterday the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling that had vested one of John Steinbeck's sons and a grand-daughter the publishing rights to ten of Steinbeck's early works, including The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. According to an Associated News report, brought to the IPKat's attention by the ever-valuable Miri Frankel, this ruling leaves the copyrights in the hands of the Penguin Group, which has declared itself to be "tremendously gratified". According to the AP report,

"Steinbeck signed agreements with The Viking Press in 1938 and 1939 covering many of his best-known words, including "The Grapes of Wrath," "Of Mice and Men," "The Long Valley," "Cup of Gold," "The Pastures of Heaven," "Tortilla Flat" and "In Dubious Battle." The duties of The Viking Press were later assigned by Viking to Penguin Group (USA) Inc., now owned by Pearson PLC.

When Steinbeck died, he bequeathed his interest in the copyrights to his widow while his two sons each received $50,000 in trust funds.

In 1994, Elaine Steinbeck and Penguin signed a new agreement adding several other early Steinbeck works and some of his posthumous works. It also improved the economic terms, providing a larger annual guaranteed advance and royalties of 10 to 15 percent of retail sales.

When she died, Elaine Steinbeck left her copyright interests to heirs including her children and grandchildren from a previous marriage but excluded Steinbeck's two sons and their heirs.

In 2004, Steinbeck's surviving son, Thomas, and Smyle, the sole surviving child of his other son, the late John IV, informed Penguin that they were terminating its publication rights, dating to the 1930s agreements. They cited federal law aimed at preventing publishers from taking advantage of authors who sign away rights early in their careers before they have enough success to demand better terms. Penguin responded by suing them, saying the 1994 agreement with Elaine Steinbeck had superseded and terminated the deals made in the 1930s. Her heirs filed a similar suit ...".

The IPKat finds it sad that the law, passed to prevent publishers taking advantage of authors who sign away their rights when they are still poor and pecunious, was drafted with sufficient latitude to enable not only the interested parties but also their lawyers, and ultimately the judiciary, to take divergent views as to what it meant and how it should be applied. Merpel says, I hate having to unravel the various claims to rights in cases like this, since there are often complex chains of title and, as in most families, people often have the same or similar names. What we need is a convenient arbitral body that specialises in unentangling these entanglements without the need to get involved in highly-publicised litigation.

Penguins and cats here and here
Penguins and mice here
Penguin recipe here

Of penguins and mice Of penguins and mice Reviewed by Jeremy on Thursday, August 14, 2008 Rating: 5

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