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The 2nd Circuit has reversed a district court’s ruling that allowed heirs of famed author John Steinbeck to terminate a copyright grant to Penguin and reclaim publishing rights to the author’s early works, including “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men.”
Last year’s district court decision was notable because it said that a 1994 settlement agreement between the two parties couldn’t supercede so-called “termination rights” enjoyed by the Steinbeck estate. The 1976 Copyright Act gives creators or their heirs the ability to “terminate” a copyright grant after a certain amount of time passes in a copyrighted work’s life. In this case, Steinbeck’s widow tried to use the law to terminate publishing rights to Penguin.
Many legal observers took last year’s Steinbeck decision as a victory for authors and creators against publishers and entertainment studios. Further decisions in other cases since then have favored creators of copyrighted works instead of those who later purchased copyrighted works.
Today, the 2nd Circuit reversed the district court’s decision, saying a new agreement can in fact terminate a prior grant, and thus extinguish the ability by an author to reclaim a copyright. Many lawyers will be cheering in Hollywood. Read the entire decision here.
Interestingly, the latest decision reaches pretty much the opposite conclusion recently made in the Lassie case decided at the 9th Circuit. In that case, the daughter of the author who wrote “Lassie Come Home” attempted to terminate their copyright grant, and the court concluded that allowing creators to waive their termination rights would only result in studios and publishers with greater bargaining power to manipulate standard contracts so as to never have to worry about this.
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