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Authors Guild Files a Friend of the Court Brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in Steinbeck Case

On April 28, the Authors Guild, together with the Dramatists Guild, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and former Register of Copyrights Ralph Oman, submitted a friend of the court (“amicus curiae”) brief to the U.S. Supreme Court asking the Court to clarify the law with respect to authors’ control over their copyright termination rights. While the copyright law provides that an author has the  right to terminate their copyright licenses after a certain number of years and that this right is inalienable and may therefore be exercised by their statutory heirs, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the Estate of Thomas Steinbeck v. Kaffaga has nonetheless deprived an author’s heirs of these irrevocable and vital termination rights.

In its 1976 revision to the Copyright Act, Congress gave authors the right to eventually terminate copyright grants. This was an attempt to address the fact that authors often lack leverage in the earlier stages of their careers, and thus may enter into deals that deprive them of much of the value of their own work. By giving authors this termination right, Congress allowed authors—and their statutory heirs—to renegotiate the terms of these early licenses. This was one of the many changes that Irwin Karp, then counsel of the Authors Guild, helped draft and negotiate into the copyright law. Many authors, musicians, and other creative artists and their heirs benefitted greatly from this change in the law, and many have relied upon this law in planning for the future and for structuring their own estates.

However, in Estate of Thomas Steinbeck v. Kaffaga, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals nonetheless deprived the Thomas Steinbeck Estate of these inalienable termination rights, based on the actions of the author’s widow with respect to a different set of copyrighted works. This holding not only contradicts the wording of the statute, it throws into turmoil authors’ understanding of their rights under the copyright law. This kind of turmoil can only be resolved by the Supreme Court stepping in and clarifying the law, so authors can enter into agreements and plan accordingly.

The Supreme Court has not yet agreed to hear the case, and we hope that our amicusbrief may convince the Court to do so by showing that this issue matters not only to the heirs of this one estate, but to tens of thousands of authors and heirs throughout the nation. We will continue to monitor the situation and will let you know how the case progresses.