May 6, 2013
Harper Lee sues agent after being “duped” out of the rights to To Kill A Mockingbird
by Alex Shephard
On Friday, Harper Lee filed a lawsuit in Manhattan to regain the copyright to her only published novel, the classic To Kill A Mockingbird, from her literary agent. The lawsuit alleges that Samuel Pinkus, the son-in-law of Eugene Winick, who represented Lee for over four decades, took advantage of the 87 year old author’s declining health five years ago, when he “duped” her into signing documents she did not understand. Two years ago, Lee’s friend and former pastor Dr. Thomas Lane Butts stated that the author was “95 per cent blind, profoundly deaf, bound to a wheelchair,” and that her short-term memory was “shot.” The Pulitzer-prize winning novelist has been a client of Pinkus’s since 2002, when he diverted several of his father-in-law’s clients to his own company after Winick became ill.
According to Reuters:
Pinkus engineered the transfer of Lee’s rights to secure himself “irrevocable” interest in the income derived from her book and to avoid paying legal obligations he owed to his father-in-law’s company for royalties that Pinkus allegedly misappropriated, the lawsuit said.
Pinkus, it seems, is also the reason that To Kill A Mockingbird is not currently available as an ebook, even after all the hoopla surrounding the novel’s 50th anniversary, as “Pinkus failed to respond to offers by publisher HarperCollins to discuss licensing ebook rights and did not respond to the publisher’s request for assistance related to the 50th anniversary of the publishing of To Kill A Mockingbird.”
The lawsuit asks the court to return the rights owned by Pinkus to Lee, and “asks that any commissions Pinkus received since the 2007 date be returned to her.”
To date, To Kill A Mockingbird has sold over 30 million copies since it was first released in 1960, has been translated into over 40 languages, and provided a rare instance of a great book being turned into a great film. Though Lee is seen as a recluse, she has been something of a fixture at the White House over the past six years—she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2007 and last year Barack Obama recorded an introduction for a special screening of the film.
Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.