When celebrated author John Steinbeck died in the late 1960s, he left a considerable literary legacy that included the classic American novels The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Of Mice and Men. He also left confusion as to the rights to his works that would pit members of the next generation of his family against each other in court for more than 40 years!
In September of 2017, a Los Angeles jury in a federal California court awarded Steinbeck’s stepdaughter more than $13 million after finding that the late author’s daughter-in-law purposely sabotaged negotiations to make new film versions of The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden.
The Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning author died in 1968. He bequeathed the income from some copyrighted work. He also left to his third wife, Elaine Anderson Steinbeck, royalties from other works (which weren’t then eligible for copyright renewal during the author’s lifetime). He also left royalties to his two sons from a previous marriage.
Steinbeck’s widow owned those works, pursuant to Steinbeck’s will, for which Steinbeck had been able to renew the copyrights during his lifetime. But, in accordance with federal copyright law, Steinbeck’s widow and his two sons were all entitled to royalty payments from those works for which the copyrights renewed after the author’s death.
It didn’t take long for the arguing to start over the royalty distributions, culminating in a number of lawsuits. These disputes also highlight the importance of careful estate planning that considers the long-term implications of asset distribution, particularly with royalties, and management for future generations. For one thing, Steinbeck would have benefitted from a trust naming a neutral third party as the trustee, but his primary estate planning document was a will.
The parties entered into a settlement agreement in 1983. The author’s sons relinquished their rights to “exploit” 16 of Steinbeck’s works that had their copyrights renewed after the author’s death in favor of his third wife, Elaine. In return, the sons received an increased share of the royalty payments and Steinbeck’s widow received a decreased share, according to court documents.
Steinbeck’s sons, John Steinbeck IV and Thomas Steinbeck, died in 1991 and 2016, respectively. Steinbeck’s widow, Elaine Anderson Steinbeck, died in 2003.
Waverly Scott Kaffaga, the daughter of Steinbeck’s widow, Elaine, and the executor of her mother’s estate, filed a lawsuit in 2014 against Thomas Steinbeck, his wife, Gail Knight Steinbeck, and their company, Palladin Group Inc., in which she alleged that they repeatedly interfered with the ability of Elaine Steinbeck’s estate to exploit the works, in direct violation of the 1983 settlement agreement. Kaffaga accused the couple of lying that they had rights to exploit the works and inserting themselves into negotiations between the estate and third partiess, according to the complaint. She sought to recover lost profits from alleged film adaptations of Steinbeck’s novels, including East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath, in addition to punitive damages.
A district court judge ruled before the trial that the defendant’s actions were in violation of the 1983 settlement agreement. On September 5, 2017, a jury found that Gail Knight Steinbeck and her company intentionally interfered with Kaffaga’s efforts to negotiate deals to remake film versions of The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden and awarded Kaffaga $13.15 million ($5.25 million in compensatory damages and $7.9 million in punitive damages). The next chapter in the dispute may take place if Gail Knight Steinbeck decides to appeal the award.