'To Kill a Mockingbird': Literary Agent Addresses Allegation of Stealing Copyright

Gregory Peck Harper Lee - P 2013
Everett Collection

In May, Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird, filed a blockbuster lawsuit alleging that her former literary agent Samuel Pinkus had “engaged in a scheme to dupe" her into assigning the valuable copyright to her book. According to Lee's lawsuit, Pinkus created shell companies and bank accounts to route the book's royalties before he was eventually pressured into assigning the copyright back to Lee.

Pinkus still hasn't directly answered that lawsuit, which was filed in a New York federal court. But the agent is also fighting a second, related lawsuit. On Friday, in that other dispute, Pinkus addressed the charge that he took advantage of an 80-year-old author's declining hearing and eyesight to grab hold of one of the literary world's most lucrative properties.

According to a motion that was filed on behalf of Pinkus and his companies:

"Ms. Lee's assignment of the Mockingbird copyright specifically retained to her 'all rights to any revenue, financial benefit, royalties, or any benefit whatsoever derived from the exploitation of the Property, now or in the future.' The inconvenient real facts make for a much less interesting story."

The above passage comes as footnote within a motion to dismiss. (Read it here in full.)

Pinkus is looking to swat away a lawsuit brought by the literary agency of McIntosh & Otis, which is demanding almost $780,000 in owed money plus being appointed as a receiver of his company's assets.

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Pinkus once worked at M&O. There, he followed in the footsteps of his father-in-law, Eugene Winick, to handle representation of Lee, mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark, the Joy of Cooking trusts and others. In the middle part of the last decade, Pinkus split from M&O to set up his own agency, Veritas Media Inc., setting off several rounds of mediations and arbitration over entitlements to commissions.

In the midst of this came Pinkus' alleged scheme to defraud Lee.

In the author's lawsuit, Lee identified a motive for what had happened. Lee's lawsuit said:

"Pinkus's motive for engaging in this conduct appears related to his efforts to avoid M&O's efforts to collect on a judgment that it had recovered against VMI in a New York arbitration over entitlement to commissions on the works and authors (including Harper Lee) that Pinkus had diverted from M&O during Eugene Winick's illness. To avoid that judgment against VMI, Pinkus created several different companies to handle the receipt of royalties and commissions and directed the payment of royalties to a continually changing series of bank accounts. Pinkus also assigned Harper Lee's copyright, yet again, from VMI to another company that he controlled and signed foreign licenses on Harper Lee's behalf granting rights at times when Pinkus knew that he owned the copyright in TKAM and that Harper Lee could not validly transfer the licensed rights."

One month after Lee filed her lawsuit against Pinkus and his companies, M&O followed up with its own complaint in New York state court. In that latter litigation, Pinkus was alleged to have made many moves -- including on To Kill a Mockingbird -- that had the effect of frustrating M&O's attempt to collect money it was due. (Read the full complaint.)

On Friday came Pinkus' response.

"The McIntosh & Otis Complaint is, in many ways, its own work of fiction," says the defendant. "Replete with misleading plot holes, the Complaint includes a rehash of an arbitration that ended last year and wholesale cribbing from the complaint in another party's pending action."

After suggesting that M&O's lawyer has basically plagiarized Lee's lawyer, Pinkus demands that a claim that he is personally liable be barred because an arbitrator allegedly already ruled against the idea that he is the alter ego of Veritas.

Pinkus wants out from the lawsuit, but the motion to dismiss also makes the case that the lawsuit being brought "manages to be simultaneously under-inclusive and over-inclusive in its participants."

Who is not involved, but should be?

According to Pinkus' attorney, Harper Lee should have been named as a defendant in this lawsuit, because the author is also making a claim to Mockingbird money: "In other words, both M&O and Ms. Lee assert an entitlement to any commissions relating to Mockingbird, including the escrow funds held by the Publisher. Because any judgment entitling M&O to the escrowed funds would necessarily prejudice the rights of Ms. Lee, she is an indispensable party to this action."

Not suing Lee is said to be a mistake that necessitates striking a claim over money from Mockingbird that the publishers have escrowed.

E-mail: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner