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Judge gives Steinbeck kin rights to 10 works

Publishing rights include works ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ ‘Of Mice and Men’
/ Source: The Associated Press

A son and a granddaughter of author John Steinbeck hold the publishing rights to 10 of his early works, including “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men,” a federal judge has ruled, turning away a publishing house and others who claimed the rights.

U.S. District Judge Richard Owen said in a 10-page order dated Thursday that the rights properly belong to Thomas Steinbeck and Blake Smyle.

The ruling came after the two canceled rights previously held by individuals and organizations including publishing house Penguin Group (USA) Inc. and the heirs of John Steinbeck’s widow, Elaine, who died in April 2003.

The rights to many of Steinbeck’s other works will remain with Penguin and the heirs of Elaine Steinbeck, the author’s third wife. Still others will be held jointly with Thomas Steinbeck, of Monticello, Calif., and Smyle, of Boonsboro, Md. Smyle is the only child of John Steinbeck IV, who died in 1991.

Owen said copyright laws were written with the flexibility to accommodate authors such as Steinbeck, who couldn’t have predicted when he wrote his first book in 1929 how valuable his works would become. The law permits authors or their heirs to terminate contracts and renegotiate deals, “allowing creators or their heirs appropriate reward for the artistic gifts to our culture,” the judge said.

Maureen Donnelly, a spokeswoman for Penguin, said the company was disappointed with the ruling and was considering its options.

Some of the Steinbeck classics published by Penguin are affected by the decision, but Donnelly said the ruling was “the first round in what will be a long and complicated process.”

“The purported termination will not take effect for most of them for many years in the future,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Elaine Steinbeck’s heirs did not immediately return a phone message.

Mark S. Lee, a Los Angeles lawyer for Thomas Steinbeck and Smyle, said his clients wanted to protect and preserve the Steinbeck legacy. They plan to renegotiate contracts to publish the works with Penguin or other publishers, he said.

“Getting these rights will better enable them to do that,” he said. “We’re dealing obviously with classics of American literature.”

John Steinbeck, born in Salinas, Calif., in 1902, died in 1968, six years after he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The judge awarded the rights to the following works to Thomas Steinbeck and Smyle: “Cup of Gold,” “The Pastures of Heaven,” “The Red Pony,” “To a God Unknown,” “Tortilla Flat,” “In Dubious Battle,” “Of Mice and Men” (both the novel and the play), “The Long Valley” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”