NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. court was wrong to award rights to some of John Steinbeck's best-known novels, including "The Grapes of Wrath," to his son and granddaughter, a federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday.
The appeals court said Penguin Group, a unit of Pearson Plc, can retain publishing rights to about 10 early works by the author. The case has been seen as having ramifications for heirs of other artists seeking to control future use of famous works.
Other Steinbeck books affected by the ruling include "Of Mice and Men," "Tortilla Flat," and the author's first published novel, "Cup of Gold."
Steinbeck, who set many of his books in his native California, received both a Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 1968.
The appeals court decision overturns a 2006 ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard Owen in New York that had granted the rights to several classic books by the author to Steinbeck's son, Thomas Steinbeck, and granddaughter, Blake Smyle.
Owen had found that heirs could terminate contracts under copyright laws to allow artists or their descendants "appropriate reward for the artistic gifts to our culture."
While the family members had sought to end a 1938 agreement with the publisher by serving a notice of termination in 2004, that notice was not valid, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said on Wednesday.
It said Steinbeck's third wife, Elaine Steinbeck, had entered a new publishing agreement in 1994 whose terms should stand. When she died in 2003, she left her copyright interests to her children and grandchildren from a previous marriage, excluding Steinbeck's two sons and their heirs.
"We conclude that the 2004 notice of termination is ineffective," a three-judge panel of the court wrote. "The 1994 agreement remains in effect."
Penguin sued Thomas Steinbeck and Smyle in 2004, while Elaine Steinbeck's estate brought a similar case.
Mark Lee, a lawyer for Steinbeck's son and granddaughter, said in a statement that "while we're disappointed with this result" they plan to continue to pursue damage claims against Elaine Steinbeck's estate and other defendants in court.
"My clients are still weighing their options with regard to further appellate action," he told Reuters.
Penguin said in a statement that "as John Steinbeck's publisher for over 60 years, we are tremendously gratified by the Second Circuit's decision."
Editing by John Wallace, Braden Reddall, Richard Chang