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Court battle over control of John Steinbeck’s work continues in Anchorage

FILE - In this March 22, 1963, file photo, Nobel prize-winning author John Steinbeck, right, admires a prize-winning poster by his son, Thomas Steinbeck in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo, File)

Both sides had another day in court Tuesday in a family battle that has been waged for decades over who controls the works of iconic author John Steinbeck.

A three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments to an appeal by the estate of Steinbeck's late son, Thomas Steinbeck. The panel was in Anchorage to hear various cases.

Thomas Steinbeck's estate is contesting a 2017 federal jury verdict in California that awarded more than $13 million to the author's stepdaughter, Waverly Scott Kaffaga, whose mother was John Steinbeck's third wife. The lawsuit said Thomas Steinbeck and his wife, Gail Steinbeck, impeded film adaptations of the classic works. A judge earlier ruled in the same case that the couple breached an agreement between Kaffaga's late mother and Thomas Steinbeck and his late brother, John Steinbeck IV.

Neither Gail Steinbeck nor Waverly Kaffaga attended Tuesday's proceeding.

Attorney Matthew Dowd, representing the Thomas Steinbeck estate, told the circuit judges the appeal contends 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 of Gail Steinbeck's ability to pay.

Kaffaga's attorney, Susan Kohlmann, told the circuit judges multiple courts, including an earlier Ninth Circuit decision, have already upheld the agreement as binding and valid, and deemed it enforceable. She called the contract argument a "complete red herring."

Dowd disagreed. He said previous decisions on the agreement didn't completely deal with the particular issue involving the 1976 statute. He said Gail Steinbeck was not allowed to fully address the issue in court.

The appeals panel did not rule immediately on the case. Dowd earlier said he didn't expect a decision for several months.

The judges appeared skeptical that the contract issue wasn't adequately dealt with in previous rulings, and they questioned whether they were being asked to review another circuit court's decision.

The judges also said the punitive damages of about $8 million awarded by the Los Angeles jury in 2017 appeared to have been decided without evidence of Gail Steinberg's ability to pay. If that part was stricken from the award, there would still remain $5.25 million in compensatory damages, they noted.

“That’s not an insignificant amount,” Judge Richard Tallman said.

FILE - In this Feb. 27, 2002 file photo, Thomas Steinbeck, son of author John Steinbeck, speaks to a crowd at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif., to celebrate what would have been his father's 100th birthday. (Richard Green/The Californian, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 29, 2017, file photo, Gail Steinbeck, widow of Thomas Steinbeck, the son of author John Steinbeck, leaves federal court in downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Brian Melley, File)

After the short proceeding, Dowd said he was hopeful and positive about his argument about the 1983 agreement. "And from oral arguments, it's clear that the court thought there was error with the punitive damages award," he said.

Kohlman expressed confidence her side will prevail. "We look forward to the day when Waverly Kaffaga can exploit the rights of John Steinbeck without interference and bring the works to life," she said.

The lawsuit followed a decades-long dispute and litigation between Thomas Steinbeck and Kaffaga's mother over control of the author's works.

Kaffaga, executor for the estate of her mother Elaine Steinbeck, 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.

Kaffaga had contended Thomas Steinbeck secretly signed a $650,000 deal with the DreamWorks studio 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 in 1940 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, was fully within his right to do so under the 1976 "termination rights" clause.

Thomas Steinbeck had lost most rounds in court, including a lawsuit he and the daughter of his late brother, John Steinbeck IV, brought that spurred Kaffaga to countersue in the case being appealed.

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