Harper Lee's Hometown Museum Fires Back at "To Kill a Mockingbird" Author
(MOBILE, Ala.) -- The reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, is suing her hometown museum for unauthorized use of her name, causing a war of words. Nelle Harper Lee, 87, is famous, though the 1960 book remains her only published novel. It was made into a movie of the same name in 1962, and the lead role of Atticus Finch earned Gregory Peck a Best Actor Oscar.
Though the film was set in the 1930s in the fictional Maycomb County, Ala., Lee said her real hometown's "desire to capitalize upon the fame of To Kill a Mockingbird is unmistakable," the court filing stated. The town logo for Monroeville, her hometown and the county seat of Monroe County features an image of a mockingbird, her lawsuit pointed out.
Lee filed suit on Oct. 10 against Monroe County Heritage Museum, which uses the URL ToKillaMockingBird.com.
Last month, her lawsuit against her former literary agent over royalties was dismissed after the parties reached a private agreement. Lee's lawyers argued that the agent took advantage of the old age of the author, who was in an assisted-living facility when she signed a document that assigned her copyright to the book.
She filed the complaint with the U.S. District Court in Mobile, Ala., which is about 80 miles southwest of Monroeville.
"The museum seeks to profit from the unauthorized use of the protected names and trademarks of 'Harper Lee' and To Kill A Mockingbird," the lawsuit says, adding that it's a "substantial business that generated over $500,000 in revenue for 2011, the last year for which figures are available."
Public records show the museum had $543,996 in revenue in 2011 and $505,201 in expenses.
Matthew I. Goforth, an attorney for the museum, fired back at Lee's lawsuit in a statement to ABC News, saying, "Every single statement in the lawsuit is either false, meritless, or both."
"It is sad that Harper Lee's greedy handlers have seen fit to attack the non-profit museum in her hometown that has been honoring her legacy and the town's rich history associated with that legacy for over 20 years," Goforth, with Gordon, Dana, Knight & Gilmore, LLC, said on behalf of the museum. "Unfortunately for Harper Lee, those handlers are doing nothing but squandering her money with this lawsuit. The museum is squarely within its rights to carry out its mission as it always has."
Lee's attorney, A. Clay Rankin III, declined to comment. Lee could not be reached for comment.
In the suit, Lee asks for unspecified compensatory damages and attorney fees.
Lee received the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for the book, which has sold more than 30 million copies in the English language and "continues to sell over a million copies a year and has been translated into over 25 languages," the lawsuit says.
"It is on the required reading lists of over three-quarters of the high schools in the United States," the complaint says.
Lee says the museum's "actual work does not touch upon history," according to 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," the lawsuit adds.
Lee's complaint argues that her book title has built enough common law protection that it can't be used by the museum without her permission.
There are at least three important issues in the litigation, according to Leigh Ann Lindquist, an attorney specializing in trademark and copyright law with Sughrue Mion, PLLC, a law firm that is not involved in this dispute. The first is the parties' past relationship, if any. The second is how long the museum has been selling the clothing and gift store items with To Kill a Mockingbird on them. The third issue in litigation will likely be when Lee first knew about the sale of these museum items.
"And, of course, the court will have to decide what trademark rights Ms. Lee has in the marks," Lindquist said.
Lee said in the lawsuit that the museum "intentionally sells its goods and services by unauthorized use of the To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee marks and names."
The lawsuit claimed the museum is violating federal trademark infringement laws and federal law of unfair competition, and other laws.
One of the examples that Lee provides in the lawsuit of unauthorized use of her name in museum marketing materials says, "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."
"Historical facts belong to the world, but fiction and trademarks are protected by law," the complaint says. "The museum has steadfastly ignored Ms. Lee's demands that it cease and desist from its illegal action. The museum has even attempted to block Ms. Lee's federal registration of her trademark in To Kill a Mockingbird."
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