Heirs of Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck clashed Tuesday in a Los Angeles courtroom in a copyright case that could decide which side has the right to greenlight movie deals with the likes of Steven Spielberg.

Family members of the American author of such classics as “Of Mice and Men,” “East of Eden” and “The Grapes of Wrath” have been feuding for decades in courtrooms on both coasts over control of the Steinbeck copyrights and what the writer intended in his will.

In the latest installment, Waverly Scott Kaffaga, daughter of the author’s late third wife, is asking a federal civil jury in downtown Los Angeles to award unspecified damages and lost profits from two proposed film adaptations that were not produced, allegedly because of “interference” from the defendant — the estate of the author’s eldest son, Thom Steinbeck, personified by Thom’s widow Gail Knight Steinbeck.

According to plaintiff’s attorney Susan Kohlmann, Kaffaga has the right to make deals for John Steinbeck’s works — but each time she tries, Gail Knight Steinbeck “demands a seat at the table” and gums up the works.

Kohlmann told the jury in her 20-minute opening statement that the panel must decide if Gail Steinbeck did “intentionally interfere” with significant production proposals that included a deal for a DreamWorks adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath” to be directed by Spielberg and a two-part Universal/Imagine production of “East of Eden.”

Kohlmann said that when John Steinbeck died in 1968, he left his estate and future profits from his works to his widow, Elaine. His sons each got $50,000, the attorney said.

When she died in 2003, Elaine Steinbeck left her estate, apparently including copyrights to her late husband’s works, to daughter Waverly — whose father was the actor Zachary Scott, Kohlmann said.

However, Kohlmann told the jury, for the past 15 years Kaffaga has been unable to see productions of her stepfather’s work developed because whenever Hollywood deals are discussed, Gail Steinbeck steps in and “tries to nudge her way under the tent.”

“Enough’s enough — it’s time to allow Waverly to do her job … and protect (John Steinbeck’s) legacy,” she said.

Gail Steinbeck’s attorney, Matthew I. Berger, countered that his client, in fact, “wants the deals to go through.” But since she is a rightful owner of the late author’s copyrights, she is entitled to more money than has been offered, he said.

“This is a very complex copyright issue,” Berger told the jury. “None of our clients interfered with anything.”

The defense attorney told the jury that because no films were produced of the two novels, no damages should be awarded.

Adaptations of “period pieces,” such as “East of Eden” — which tells of two families and their interwoven stories — are not slam dunks and there’s no way to guess how much money they may have made if produced, Berger said.

Testimony continues Wednesday. The trial is expected to take about a week.

–City News Service

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