John Steinbeck Heirs Lose Bid for Supreme Court to Hear Copyright Dispute

A messy legal dispute over the publication rights to many of John Steinbeck's famous works was denied further review by the Supreme Court, the justices announced Monday.

The legendary author's only surviving son and sole grandchild filed notice seeking to regain control of the copyrights that had been signed away in 1938. But lower courts have ruled that the pair's application is invalid because of an agreement Steinbeck's third wife Elaine made 17 years ago.

Over the years, Congress has passed several laws allowing for artists or their heirs to assume control over copyrighted work decades after the fact. The laws were created as an acknowledgment that creative works often don't realize their full commercial value until well after their initial publication.

Lawyers for Steinbeck's heirs sought to take advantage of the copyright's so-called termination rights for his classic works including "Tortilla Flat," "Of Mice and Men" and "The Grapes of Wrath."

But their efforts were stymied in court by publishers who contend that Elaine Steinbeck had renewed the copyrights in 1994, nearly a decade a before her death. A main issue presented to the court was whether she had the right to make that decision without the consent of her husband's other heirs.

The plaintiff's asked the court to take the case because they said an ultimate ruling could provide clarity on how similar copyright laws are applied to films, music and software.  It's the second time they have tried and failed to get the justices to take the case.