Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog

Editor: Gerry W. Beyer
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Monday, August 5, 2019

Judges to Hear Appeal in Lawsuit Over John Steinbeck Works

GrapesofwrathA three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will be in Anchorage, Alaska this coming Thursday to hear arguments in an appeal by the estate of author John Steinbeck’s late son, Thomas Steinbeck, over a 2017 jury verdict in California. In that case, a federal judge ruled that Thomas and his widow, Gail, had impeded film adaptations of the author's works, awarding Thomas' step-sister, Waverly Scott Kaffaga, who is the executor of Elaine Steinbeck's estate, her mother and John Steinbeck's widow, more than $13 million.

Attorney Matthew Dowd who represents the Thomas Steinbeck estate, said part of the appeal contends the 1983 agreement was in violation of a 1976 change to copyright law that gave artists or their blood relatives the right to terminate copyright deals. The estate's appeal also disputes the award handed up by the jury, maintaining it was not supported by “substantial evidence.”

Kaffaga claims that the litigation has prevented her from making the most of her stepfather's copyrights, and that deals with big Hollywood names interested in remaking Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden have fallen through. Dowd said Thomas Steinbeck, who died in 2016, conveyed his intention to exercise those rights, prompting Kaffaga to claim contract breach of a 1983 agreement between the parties. The attorney says the problem with the agreement is that "it violates the statute by basically binding up, or restricting, Thomas’s ability to exercise his termination rights for The Grapes of Wrath."

In a brief in response to the appeal, the agreement, which resolved earlier litigation, gives Elaine Steinbeck’s estate the “exclusive power and authority to control the exploitation and termination” of some of Steinbeck’s works in exchange for the sons getting a larger share of domestic royalties, according to the attorneys.

See Rachel D'Oro, Judges to Hear Appeal in Lawsuit Over John Steinbeck Works, Everything Lubbock, August 5, 2019.

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/trusts_estates_prof/2019/08/judges-to-hear-appeal-in-lawsuit-over-john-steinbeck-works.html

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