Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird, has found herself inside a real courtroom. Lee recently filed a lawsuit alleging that the son-in-law of her longtime literary agent tricked her into signing away her royalty rights.
Lee, who is now 87 years old, only wrote one book. However, the story of Atticus Finch, a lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman in a small Southern town, is widely considered a children’s classic and sold more than 30 million copies.
According to the copyright lawsuit, Samuel Pinkus, the son-in-law of Lee’s long-time agent, Eugene Winick and others, “engaged in a scheme to dupe” Lee into assigning her copyright in the novel without any compensation. While Lee has no memory of the transaction, court documents reveal that Pinkus attempted to secure himself “irrevocable” interest in the income derived from To Kill a Mockingbird.
After he retained the rights to the novel, Pinkus failed to provide Lee with any royalty statements, according to the complaint. He also failed to respond to licensing requests from HarperCollins related to e-book versions of the novel and the 50th anniversary of the publication.
The copyright suit asked the court to return to Lee all rights in the novel purportedly held by Pinkus. It also seeks the return of all commissions Pinkus received since 2007. The court agreed with Lee and restored her copyright ownership. Additionally, it appears that she has settled the monetary damages lawsuit as well.
As this case highlights, copyrights to novels and other works can produce licensing royalties for many years. Therefore, it is important to have protections in place to account for the possibility of incapacity, due to illness or injury.
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