The Vanity Fair issue has been out for awhile now, but for anyone interested in Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” John Steinbeck, publishing, legal intrigue, contracts, copyright termination, or underhanded dealing, there is a lengthy investigative article in the August issue called “To Steal a Mockingbird.” It is the story behind a lawsuit filed by Harper Lee to recoup royalties paid to her agent after he convinced her to assign the copyright in her book to him.
It is not only Harper Lee who claims to be victimized, but the Steinbeck heirs were involved in battling the same agent. As told in the Vanity Fair article, John Steinbeck’s sons were convinced by their stepmother, John Steinbeck’s third wife and widow, to give her powers of attorney in exchange for higher copyright revenues, apparently at the behest of the agent so that the agent could have complete control over the Steinbeck copyrights. Elaine died leaving her estate, including the revenue from the Steinbeck copyrights, to her own children and cutting out the Steinbeck blood heirs.
Steinbeck’s son and granddaughter tried to terminate Elaine’s grant but were unsuccessful (blogged here), leaving the son, according to the article, “in a rented house, having lost the case and most of their money in the lawsuit.”
The Court of Appeals decision in the Steinbeck case is a very technical analysis of a very technical copyright provision. But this story is a reminder of how, behind every court decision, no matter how sterile, there are complicated personal stories.
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