Authors Guild Files a Friend of the Court Brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in Steinbeck Case

On April 28, the Authors Guild, together with the Dramatists Guild, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and former Register of Copyrights Ralph Oman, submitted a friend of the court (“amicus curiae”) brief to the U.S. Supreme Court asking the Court to clarify the law with respect to authors’ control over their copyright termination rights. While the copyright law provides that an author has the  right to terminate their copyright licenses after a certain number of years and that this right is inalienable and may therefore be exercised by their statutory heirs, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the Estate of Thomas Steinbeck v. Kaffaga has nonetheless deprived an author’s heirs of these irrevocable and vital termination rights.

In its 1976 revision to the Copyright Act, Congress gave authors the right to eventually terminate copyright grants. This was an attempt to address the fact that authors often lack leverage in the earlier stages of their careers, and thus may enter into deals that deprive them of much of the value of their own work. By giving authors this termination right, Congress allowed authors—and their statutory heirs—to renegotiate the terms of these early licenses. This was one of the many changes that Irwin Karp, then counsel of the Authors Guild, helped draft and negotiate into the copyright law. Many authors, musicians, and other creative artists and their heirs benefitted greatly from this change in the law, and many have relied upon this law in planning for the future and for structuring their own estates.

However, in Estate of Thomas Steinbeck v. Kaffaga, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals nonetheless deprived the Thomas Steinbeck Estate of these inalienable termination rights, based on the actions of the author’s widow with respect to a different set of copyrighted works. This holding not only contradicts the wording of the statute, it throws into turmoil authors’ understanding of their rights under the copyright law. This kind of turmoil can only be resolved by the Supreme Court stepping in and clarifying the law, so authors can enter into agreements and plan accordingly.

Link to the rest at The Author’s Guild

Even though PG attended law school in California and has been a member of its state bar for a very long time (although he categorically denies reports that his state bar number is a single digit), he is still embarrassed by the Ninth Circuit on a regular basis.

1 thought on “Authors Guild Files a Friend of the Court Brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in Steinbeck Case”

  1. Hmm. PG, I am no fan of the 9th Circus myself, but in this case, the stopped clock may have had the correct time.

    Looking at the case summary (Justia), but not digging into the whole thing – this looks like they made the right decision based on the law and equity both. (Not easy in a family feud, which this is.)

    They ruled for the plaintiff, Waverly Scott Kafaga – who happens to be the step-daughter of John Steinbeck, but also the Executrix (ah, nice to encounter a word that has not yet been degendered…) of her mother’s (Elaine Steinbeck’s) estate.

    There was apparently a kerfluffle back in the 1980s over whether the IP rights passed to Elaine on John’s death, or went to his son (Thomas) by his first marriage. That, however, was apparently dealt with by a settlement in 1983 that accorded the rights to Elaine, but entitled Thomas (and his heirs) to royalties.

    So, Elaine’s estate owns the rights, which are properly managed for the estate by Waverly Kaffaga. She apparently was in negotiations to permit the remakes of two motion pictures (“The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden”), when the defendant (Gail Knight Steinbeck, Thomas’s widow) interfered by raising questions of whether Waverly had the right to do so.

    I think that the Author’s Guild is barking up the wrong tree yet again – of which they tend to make a habit. The case has nothing that I can see that would affect the provisions for the reversion of an assignment of rights in the Code. The rights are always irrevocably the property of the author, and his or her proper heir(s) after death (dealt with by the settlement agreement in 1983 – the rights were not assigned to Elaine, they were recognized).

    (Pardon the long post. I’ve been deprived of my TPV habit for several days; for some reason the “Quarantine Opera” was the most recent post until I completely cleared my cache out – which was beginning to worry me about your condition. All is well at Casa PG, apparently!)

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