Why John Steinbeck could be the hottest name in Hollywood (at least at the Supreme Court)

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Why John Steinbeck could be the hottest name in Hollywood (at least at the Supreme Court)

Tue Feb 17, 2009 @ 01:49PM PST

By Eriq Gardner

Steinbeck We think we've identified the next big Supreme Court case that will enrapture many executives and lawyers in Hollywood.

The last surviving descendants of John Steinbeck (left), author of such American classics as "Of Mice and Men" and "The Grapes of Wrath," have filed an appeal up to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act entitles them to recapture the rights to Steinbeck's works. Here's the petition of certiorari by Steinbeck's son and granddaughter.

Early 20th Century American literature might not sound like something that will steam up Hollywood, so why should you care about this case?

The same reason why we predict the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to hear it. 

The legal issues under contention in the Steinbeck case have come up before, in Hollywood's backyard, most recently in last year's Lassie case, when the Eighth Circuit ruled that the daughter of the original "Lassie" writer  was in her legal right to exercise termination of granted copyright over Lassie. Termination rights have haunted Hollywood thanks to attorneys like Marc Toberoff, who has represented a fair share of estates wrestling control over big properties. The most famous example is Warner Bros. ongoing war against the estates of the original creators of "Superman."

Many in studio legal circles welcomed news last August that the 2nd Circuit reversed a district court's ruling allowing Steinbeck's heirs to terminate a copyright grant to Penguin. That Steinbeck ruling, however, caused a significant appeals court split on the issue of whether the U.S. Copyright Act grants to authors and family members the right to terminate transfers of copyright "notwithstanding any agreement to the contrary."

It's true that the Supreme Court denies a lot of cases and is particularly reluctant to address copyright matters.

However, besides a big appeals court split, this appeal has another factor going for it: Representing the Steinbeck heirs is former solicitor general Theodore Olson, now at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. Olson's name on the petition of certiorari lends a great deal of credibility to this case. 

Hollywood better get the best amicus brief writers in town ready.

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The Hollywood Reporter
The Hollywood Reporter, Esq. blog focuses on how the entertainment and media industries are impacted and influenced by the law. It is edited by Matthew Belloni with contributions from veteran legal reporter Eriq Gardner and others. Before joining The Hollywood Reporter, Belloni was a lawyer at an entertainment litigation firm in Los Angeles. He writes a column for THR devoted to entertainment law. Gardner is a New York-based writer and legal journalist. Send tips or comments to Matthew.Belloni@thr.com

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