I don’t know many people who haven’t read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1960 and is the story of racial prejudice and inequality in the South. Atticus Finch (portrayed in an Oscar-winning performance by Gregory Peck in a 1962 movie adaptation of the book) defends a black man accused of attacking a white woman and is convicted despite his innocence. Many of the elements of the book were based on Harper Lee’s experiences in her hometown and, in addition to Atticus Finch, several of its main characters, Scout Finch and Boo Radley, have become enduring literary icons.
To Kill A Mockingbird is the only book ever written by Harper Lee and she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for it in 1961. While Harper Lee initially would speak to the press and answer questions about the book and its themes, in 1964 she began declining all interviews and has rarely been seen in public since then. One of her last public appearances was in November 2007 when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.
To Kill A Mockingbird has sold over 30 million copies since its publication in 1960 and is widely considered one of the best books ever written. In fact, in 2008 a poll taken in England voted it the greatest novel of all time.
Now Harper Lee, who is 87 years old and lives in an assisted living facility in Alabama, is suing Samuel Pinkus, the son-in-law of Lee’s long-time literary agent, Eugene Winick. Mr. Winick had represented Harper Lee for over 40 years and, when he became ill in 2002, the lawsuit alleges that Pinkus “engaged in a scheme to dupe Harper Lee, then 80 years old with declining hearing and eyesight” by getting her to sign away the book’s copyright to his company. The suit also alleges that Ms. Lee has no memory of agreeing to relinquish her rights or of signing the agreement.
Although the copyright was assigned back to Harper Lee last year after another lawsuit, the new legal action is designed to reclaim the full ownership of the copyright in order to ensure that Pinkus does not receive any additional commissions on the book, which continues to sell copies, both paper and digital, every year. The lawsuit says that Pinkus has not provided royalty statements and also is demanding that he return any commissions he’s received since 2007.
While this may take a while to play out in court, I can’t help but think that – if what the lawsuit alleges is true – how tragic that an author who wrote a book so uniquely linked to fairness and equality would have been taken advantage of by someone to whom she entrusted her affairs.