Another chapter is set to play out in a decades-old family dispute over control of the classic works by author John Steinbeck.

A three-judge panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals will be in Alaska's largest city to hear arguments in an appeal by the estate of Steinbeck's late son, Thomas Steinbeck, over a 2017 jury verdict in California.

In that case, a federal jury awarded the author's stepdaughter, Waverly Scott Kaffaga, more than US$13 million ($19.8m) in a lawsuit claiming Steinbeck's son and daughter-in-law, Gail Steinbeck, impeded film adaptations of the works.

It was up to the Los Angeles jury to decide if Thomas and Gail Steinbeck interfered with deals and should pay up. Kaffaga had sued her stepbrother, his widow, Gail, and their company.

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Attorney Matthew Dowd, representing the Thomas Steinbeck estate, said part of the appeal contended the 1983 agreement was in violation of a 1976 change to copyright law that gave artists or their blood relatives the right to terminate copyright deals. The appeal also disputes the award handed up by the jury, maintaining it was not supported by "substantial evidence".

Kaffaga — executor for the estate of her mother, Elaine Steinbeck, the author's widow and third wife — had alleged that long-running litigation over the author's estate prevented her from making the most of his copyrights at a time when marquee names such as Steven Spielberg and Jennifer Lawrence were interested in bringing masterpieces The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden back to the screen. She said the deals instead fell apart over the years.

Nobel prize-winning author John Steinbeck, right, admires a prize-winning poster by his son, Thomas Steinbeck. Photo / AP
Nobel prize-winning author John Steinbeck, right, admires a prize-winning poster by his son, Thomas Steinbeck. Photo / AP

Kaffaga had contended Thomas Steinbeck secretly signed a US$650,000 ($992,000) deal with DreamWorks to be an executive producer on a film remake of The Grapes of Wrath, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that starred Henry Fonda on the silver screen and won two Oscars. She also said Gail Steinbeck learned of projects and threatened moviemakers, saying she and her husband had legal rights to the work.

Dowd said Thomas Steinbeck, who died in 2016, conveyed his intention to exercise those rights, prompting Kaffaga to claim the contract breach. He said Steinbeck was fully within his right to do so, under the 1976 "termination rights" clause.

"The 1983 agreement violates the statute by binding up, or restricting, Thom's ability to exercise his termination rights for The Grapes of Wrath," Dowd said.

Gail Steinbeck, widow of Thomas Steinbeck, the son of author John Steinbeck, is involved in the litigation. Photo/AP
Gail Steinbeck, widow of Thomas Steinbeck, the son of author John Steinbeck, is involved in the litigation. Photo/AP

Gail Steinbeck was not allowed to fully address the issue in court, he said.

"We would like the court to rule that the 1983 agreement violates the statute and therefore cannot prevent the heirs from exercising their termination rights," Dowd said. "Relatedly, we are asking for a new trial and that the damages awards be vacated because they are too speculative and there is no legal basis for awarding punitive damages under California law."

- AP

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