This week marks 53 years since the publication of Monroeville native Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
On July 11, 1960, the novel about an honest lawyer defending a black man against spurious rape charges in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, was first released. Told from the perspective of attorney Atticus Finch’s daughter, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, TKAM has enchanted readers for 53 years, spawning both literary and cultural phenomenon.
More than half a century after TKAM was first read, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the movie it inspired — the 1962 Academy Award-winning film starring Gregory Peck — hold a profound power over Alabamians and readers worldwide.
No surprise, then, that a plan hatched against the book’s beloved author has made international news; Harper Lee is suing her former literary agent, Samuel Pinkus, for royalties lost during a stint in which Pinkus controlled TKAM’s copyright.
No surprise, either, that upon hearing of Ms. Lee’s complaint, those who cherish her only published work cry sacrilege, as the lawsuit’s very existence hearkens back to the novel, a reminder of the unkindness in the world.
An examination of the lawsuit also merits an examination of why readers love TKAM, and why word of Lee’s present day courtroom drama was newsworthy here, home, in Alabama and around the world.
Lee says Pinkus visited her regularly, traveling from New York to the assisted living facility in Monroeville where Lee has resided since a 2007 stroke. Generally, he had papers for the author to sign. The visits were unannounced and frequent — until the private Lee gave orders for the staff to not permit his entrance.
On May 3, 2013, Lee filed a lawsuit against Pinkus and his alleged accomplices, who she contends tricked Lee into signing away the rights to TKAM.
The list of accusations against Pinkus is lengthy, reading as if the literary agent, who has yet to respond to the allegations, were a character of ill intentions in a Gothic Southern novel with a thorny plot. The complaint recounts tales from Brazil to Hungary to an Atmore hotel room in Escambia County, of misplaced or fabricated documents, of rerouting royalties through companies created solely to carry out the so-called “duping.”
Lee’s attorney, Gloria Phares of New York — who declined comment for this article — writes in the complaint, “Until 2006, there could have been no questions that Harper Lee held the valuable copyright to her novel and licensed editions and translations of her novel around the world.”
TKAM has sold more than 30 million copies in 18 languages, according to a National Endowment for the Arts report. (Publishing house HarperCollins, which acquired TKAM’s original publisher, cites translations in 40 languages.)
According to the lawsuit, since the novel’s 1960 publication, Mackintosh & Otis (M&O) agent Eugene Winick represented Lee in her literary activities. Harper Lee and her 101-year-old sister Alice Lee — her lawyer until late 2011 — worked amicably with Winick for more than 40 years, writes Phares.
When Winick became ill in 2002, Pinkus, his son-in-law, diverted several M&O clients to a new company, Veritas Media Inc. (VMI), which Pinkus controlled, the complaint alleges, adding that he then (with temporary success) schemed to dupe Lee.
In June 2012, arbitration of the dispute between M&O and VMI was decided in favor of M&O. Lee is suing to retrieve compensatory, consequential and equitable damages during the time from 2007 during which Pinkus gained the copyright privileges. The royalties and fees collected by Pinkus during the years he controlled the copyrights total hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“The transfer of ownership of an author’s copyright to her agent is incompatible with her agent’s duty of loyalty; it is a gross example of self-dealing,” writes Phares.
The complaint reports Pinkus knew Harper Lee was an elderly woman, now 87 years old, with physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to read and see; he knew that Harper Lee and her sister relied on and trusted him, and he abused that trust to take advantage of Harper Lee’s physical condition to engineer the assignment of her copyright in a document — a purported agreement — that did not even ensure her a contractual right to her income.
Harper Lee, according to the complaint, had no idea she had assigned her copyright to VMI.
The complaint names as defendants Pinkus, his wife, Ann Winick (daughter of Lee’s longtime agent Eugene Winick), Florida-based lawyer and investigative journalist Gerald Posner and a number of companies linked to Pinkus. None of the defendants were reached for comment on this story.
Phares writes that Pinkus claimed VMI did not deduct commission on TKAM despite reports showing a 10 percent VMI commission fee. Based on the royalties and commissions that VMI received from HarperCollins alone, during 2008 and 2009 only, VMI received $180,000 in commissions, according to the complaint. This total did not include foreign publishers.
Abroad, Pinkus allegedly gave the green light for a Hungarian publisher to print a translated edition of TKAM in by assuring the publisher he had a signed contract, which he later claimed was lost. Phares contends that Pinkus ignored requests from a Spanish publisher for a rerelease in Brazil.
The lawsuit claims that after the arbitration was decided in favor of M&O, Pinkus created Philologus Procurator, Inc. (PPI) to continue receiving the royalties from TKAM. Other companies were allegedly created for this purpose, too, though Pinkus disputes those claims, denying PPI as VMI’s successor.
Phares quotes emails from Pinkus written from various email identities linked to the very companies Pinkus at times denies any connection to. Pinkus allegedly continued to represent Lee to HarperCollins until November 2010 despite being dismissed by Lee in January 2009.
All of these actions, according to Lee, show that Pinkus was not acting in the good faith of an agent.
Writing in the dark
In a blog post titled “How Not to Be a Literary Agent,” intellectual property lawyer Paul E. Thomas writes — in response to the TKAM lawsuit media storm — that “the allegations, if true, are egregious, and the narrative of the complaint presents a cautionary tale for literary agents on how not to behave in representing a client, any client, let alone one like Harper Lee, who is as universally venerated as she is famous.”
Those interested in the business of intellectual property would likely agree with Thomas. To take on TKAM seems preposterous, yet it raises the following questions: How often does such a scheme go unnoticed? What, besides royalties, does a copyright owner stand to gain? And how might a writer be tricked into reassigning those rights?
Novelist Clyde Edgerton, who has published 10 novels and whose numerous awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, spoke with Weld to explain copyrighting, the relationship between agent and writer and to better illuminate how and why Pinkus could have succeeded in duping Lee.
Edgerton explained that rights are negotiated in an original contract, and an agent’s job is to understand that agreement. The owner of a copyright receives royalties and is also the principal in determining renegotiations and deciding which rights to sell or maintain.
“[A writer] can sell certain rights,” Edgerton said. “You can sell movie rights but maintain your stage rights and audiobook rights, or sell any two of those and keep the third, or any one and keep two.”
It likely goes without saying that if one were to sell certain rights of TKAM, serious money would be involved.
Copyright infringement, when works under copyright are used without the copyright holder’s permission, is not uncommon. But it is uncommon to hear of of a complete case of mistaken copyrighting, likely because such a feat is remarkably tricky.
“Where it gets complicated in any book or story that’s been published is that you initially own the rights [along] with that original publisher,” Edgerton said. If someone comes along and wants to publish a chapter of that book, you and the publisher have to agree and split 50-50. So, it gets complicated. It goes to show you that a writer is kind of in the dark.”
Being in the dark is precisely how a writer might not be privy to the dealings surrounding her copyrighted material.
“It’s normal for [agents] to protect information and their sources,” Edgerton said. “The way the business works is that agents run a lot of stuff, and the writer is often in the dark, rather than the other way around — unless the writer tries very hard.
“So for Harper Lee, if she has been trusting her agent, it’s clear that she might be in the dark, and she could get fooled somehow.”
And if that alleged fooling had gone unnoticed? What might have become of the treasured TKAM?
“I mean, anybody can write a novel called To Kill a Mockingbird Two, because titles aren’t copyrighted,” Edgerton said, “but nine out of 10 readers will put it back down when they don’t recognize the name of the author.”
Looking for Harper Lee
In the decades since the novel’s publishing, generations have gone looking for Harper Lee and something of the world she wrote about.
For 33 years, Jim Reed has owned Reed Books on Northside, where he’s witnessed readers’ fascination with TKAM and the scores of book shoppers who come into his “Museum of Fond Memories” in search of Harper Lee.
Reed said he has no idea how many copies of TKAM he’s sold over the years. “I never keep up. Ask Books-a-Million. I’ll say bunches.”
What Reed does know is that TKAM is still both a popular sell and a source for Alabama exploration.
“That book sells all over the world. It sells in foreign countries. It sells here [at Reed Books]. We have Germans who come in here…and that’s one of the things they come for. They might not know much about us [in Alabama], but they think they know something about us from that book.”
Reed said he sends tourists in search of an authentic TKAM experience to Monroeville to stand in the courthouse and watch the stage production. He describes the experience as eerie, sweating in the pews, in the venerable space that inspired Lee.
Reed made the trip in 1990 when the play was first produced — “when people playing Atticus Finch had known the real Atticus Finch — and found himself standing in the balcony next to a “little feller,” as he put it.
“When it was over, I turned around to introduce myself. It was Philip Alford, who played Jem in the movie,” Reed said, recounting the type of fortuitous happenstance that is no stranger to Southerners.
As for the folks in search of Harper Lee and Alabama, Reed said, “I do think they’re curious about us. [To Kill a Mockingbird] is a part of so many people’s childhood.”
A part of us
Poll the state’s nurseries on names, and you’re likely to find a number of newborn Alabamians called Scout, Atticus, Finch or Radley. The same goes for pets or houseplants. Adoration of TKAM has inspired young Alabamians to pursue the law or spring for a Lee-sparked tattoo.
Weld spoke with Alabamians about the ways in which the novel has been part of their lives and how they reacted to the news of Harper Lee’s current lawsuit.
“From working at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to naming my dog Harper Lee, the impact of TKAM is deep in my fiber of being. I still turn to its powerful words for sources of inspiration, peace, comfort and strength,” said Kendall Chew, education department assistant at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
“As we move farther and farther away from the Civil Rights Era,” Chew said, “particularly in Birmingham, this book stands as a testament to the history we as a human race can never forget and should always lean on when we see our friends, families, neighbors and communities struggle.”
Writer Nancy Dorman-Hickson said, “Harper Lee gave the world an incomparable literary masterpiece that continues to resonate in the hearts and minds of each new generation. If the rights to her creation were indeed stolen from her by unscrupulous people, their actions are as despicable as those of one of the characters she created, the lying, abusive, cowardly Bob Ewell.
“Let’s hope there is an Atticus Finch in this messy mix to restore what is rightfully hers,” Dorman-Hickson continued. “As Atticus says to his son Jem, ‘There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ’em all away from you. That’s never possible.’ It may not be possible but it behooves us as human beings to step up, especially when the ‘ugly things’ affect people such as Ms. Lee to whom we are indebted.”
Carrie Boyd, library assistant at the Hoover Public Library (where there are 385 copies of TKAM in circulation), said, “TKAM was the first book to make me really think about other people and how one’s actions and words affect others. Harper Lee’s book opened my eyes to the fact that I am but one among many, and that others matter just as much as me regardless of how alike or different we are. I realized that I, as a bystander, am as much responsible for the injustices done to others as those who are dishing out the injustice.”
Boyd added that, “By making rural Maycomb, Alabama the setting, Lee portrayed the realities of racism and the life changing impact it could have on individuals. Maycomb was a microcosm of the segregated South. It related to Alabamians and Americans the importance of the individual in the Civil Rights Movement, and that everyone is responsible for the care of their fellow man. As an Alabamian, I felt then — and do now — as if many of Lee’s characters are living among us.”
Poet and Pell City native Tina Harris said that new readers might learn that “even well-meaning people can be blinded by prejudice. It is a part of the human condition that we all must guard against.”
Barrett Brown is an attorney who also serves as editor and publisher for a newspaper in Dothan — roles identical to that of Harper Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee.
“The day I found out I passed the bar exam I adopted a dog,” Brown said. “I named him Atticus. Now I have a one-eyed reminder of the responsibility I have.
“As an Alabamian, the book and Harper Lee give me immense pride,” Brown said. “I love Alabama, and I believe to truly love this state, you must embrace the negative as well as the positive. Our history is a complicated one, but it’s ours. TKAM perfectly captures that dichotomy; it’s like mamaw’s kitchen table lesson laying bare who we were and who we can be. Harper Lee perfectly captured themes of racial and social injustice and packaged them in a children’s book, a children’s book that matures with the reader. That takes genius, and she’s our genius.”
Brown says Lee’s current lawsuit is like “Sheriff Tate is dragging Boo Radley into the limelight. They’re shooting our mockingbird.”
The lawsuit remains pending, but To Kill a Mockingbird continues affecting readers around the globe. Share your experiences with the novel, and read what other TKAM fans have to say, in the comments below.