It’s a disconcerting tale of alleged injustice in small-town Alabama. A museum dedicated to Harper Lee’s classic 1960 novel To Kill A Mockingbird is fighting a lawsuit, brought by the author, which accuses it of profiting illegally from the title of her widely beloved book.
Lee, who is 87 and reportedly in poor health, filed the lawsuit last week, claiming that the Monroe County Heritage Museum had tried “to confuse, mislead and deceive the public” into thinking she had approved and endorsed its range of To Kill A Mockingbird-branded merchandise.
The author has said in the past that Maycomb, the town depicted in the novel, was based on Monroeville, Alabama, where the popular, 25-year-old museum is located. Its property includes an old courthouse, on which the set for the 1962 film adaptation was based. Its website address is tokillamockingbird.com. The museum generated more than $500,000 (£309,000) in revenue in 2011, claiming in its tax documents that its purpose is primarily historical. Lee’s lawsuit alleges, however, that “its actual work does not touch upon history. Rather, its primary mission is to trade upon the fictional story, settings and characters that Harper Lee created.”
The museum’s lawyer Matthew Goforth refuted the allegations, telling Reuters, “Every single statement in the lawsuit is either false, meritless, or both … I find it curious that her handlers suddenly want to profit by suing the museum for essentially preserving and promoting what Ms Lee helped accomplish for this community.”
If Lee’s lawsuit is successful, it could put the museum out of business. Stephanie Rogers, its executive director, told The Hollywood Reporter she had not read the suit. “The museum has been doing what we always have done,” Rogers said. “We honour her here. We don’t sell anything with her name. We sell memorabilia to those who come to see a production of To Kill a Mockingbird that we secure dramatic rights to. Everything we do is above board. I’m shocked by this.”
To Kill A Mockingbird remains Nelle Harper Lee’s only published book. It won her a Nobel Prize, while the film version won Gregory Peck an Academy Award for Best Actor. Peck played Atticus Finch, a small-town “Jim Crow”-era lawyer, who defends an African-American man wrongly accused of rape. Since its original publication in 1960, the book has sold more than 30 million copies in more than 25 languages.
The lawsuit says Lee, who recently suffered a stroke, now resides in an assisted living facility in Monroeville. This is not the first time she has challenged the museum’s legitimacy. When it began selling a cookbook named after a key character, Calpurnia’s Cook Book, the author complained and the book was pulped. Last month, Lee settled a separate lawsuit against her former literary agent, whom she accused of having duped her into signing away the novel’s copyright.
Lee’s legal history
While recovering from a stroke Harper Lee signs a document assigning the copyright for To Kill a Mockingbird to her agent’s company, Veritas Media, Inc (VMI). Lee claims to have no recollection of this.
Copyright reassigned to Lee. Samuel Pinkus ceases to be her agent.
Lee sues Pinkus and others claiming he took advantage of her old age to deprive her of royalties and that Pinkus was still receiving royalties at the time of the lawsuit.
The case was settled after a “mutually satisfactory resolution”, according to attorney Vincent Carissimi.