Harper Lee Sues Hometown Museum for Exploiting 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

Harper Lee 2005 - P 2013
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Harper Lee 2005 - P 2013

To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee is back in court.

Only weeks ago, the 87-year-old writer settled a dispute with her former agent over an alleged "scheme to dupe" her into assigning the valuable copyright to her book. Now, she's alleging that a museum in her hometown of Monroe County, Ala., is exploiting her trademark and personality rights.

The lawsuit filed in Alabama federal court targets the Monroe County Heritage Museum.

According to the complaint, "The town’s desire to capitalize upon the fame of To Kill a Mockingbird is unmistakable: Monroeville’s town logo features an image of a mockingbird and the cupola of the Old County Courthouse, which was the setting for the dramatic trial in To Kill a Mockingbird."

The museum is reported to have generated more than $500,000 in revenue in 2011, and Lee objects to claims made in IRS documents that its mission is "historical."

"Its actual work does not touch upon history," says the lawsuit. "Rather, its primary mission is to trade upon the fictional story, settings and characters that Harper Lee created in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Harper Lee's own renown as one of the nation's most celebrated authors."

It's not often that a celebrity picks a legal war over a hometown institution that aims to profit on the back of a local icon. "Historical facts belong to the world," notes the lawsuit, "but fiction and trademarks are protected by law."

In Lee's 1960 book, the small-town lawyer character Atticus Finch defends an African-American man accused of rape. Among the alleged unauthorized uses of her trademark is the way the museum is advertising its venue: "Restored to its 1930s appearance, our courtroom is the model for Harper Lee’s fictional courtroom settings in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s now one of the most recognized courtrooms in America because of the popular film version of the book.”

The museum (website: tokillamockingbird.com) is said to be selling aprons, T-shirts, fleece vests, onesies, hand towels, soaps, wine bags, magnets, glassware, bookmarks, beverage huggers and more.

Lee stops short of saying she's selling any of these commercial items herself. But she leaves open the possibility. According to the complaint (read in full here), "It was likely that, when Defendant began its use of the words, terms and name 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and 'Harper Lee,' long after Plaintiff’s marks and names had become famous, that the Plaintiff was already likely to enter those fields."

The author has attempted trademark registrations on To Kill a Mockingbird, and has been opposed by the Monroe County Heritage Museum. Lee says the attempts to cancel her trademark have been made in "bad faith" and goes so far as to claim that "Defendant knowingly withheld material information from the [Trademark Trials and Appeals] Board that it had made material statements to Plaintiff and to third parties that are inconsistent with the Defendant’s claim of senior rights in the mark."

Lee also accuses the museum and its attorney of lying to the media. After a Reuters article appeared about the fight at the trademark office, the museum's lawyer is alleged to have pushed for a correction to make clear it was not refusing to share profits with Lee.

"The correction was incorrect," says the lawsuit. "In correspondence dated June 6, 2013, Defendant’s counsel demanded a 'royalty-free' license as a condition of not opposing Ms. Lee’s application for registration of her trademark and on August 1, 2013 refused Ms. Lee’s offer to sell authorized merchandise to Defendant. The Defendant steadfastly refused, saying that 'the museum is not going to purchase its TKAM merchandise from Ms. Lee'; it falsely denied this behavior when asked about it by the press."

Lee won't be denied satisfaction in court just because of her age.

"Ms. Lee suffered a stroke and is in ill health," says the lawsuit. "The Defendant apparently believes that she lacks the desire to police her trademarks, and therefore seeks to take advantage of Ms. Lee’s condition and property. The Defendant is mistaken."

"I have not read it and not been served," says Stephanie Rogers, the museum's executive director. "The museum has been doing what we always have done. We honor 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."

E-mail: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner