‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ author Harper Lee heading back to court in fight with hometown museum


Drink coasters for sale in the gift shop of the Monroe County Heritage Museum in Monroeville, Ala. (REUTERS/Verna Gates)

Monroeville, Ala., is the sort of tiny Southern town where it’s actually possible for everyone to know everyone else’s business. The sort of town where only about 6,300 people live.

The sort of town whose most notable resident is suing the local museum that celebrates her.

On Thursday, a federal judge reinstated a trademark lawsuit by Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” who sued the Monroe County Heritage Museum for profiting from her name and work. Lee alleged the museum was seeking to take advantage of her ailing health — she had a stroke in 2007 — and that the sale of “Mockingbird” tchotchkes netted the museum more than $500,000 in 2011.

In this Aug. 20, 2007, file photo, author HarperLee smiles during a ceremony honoring the four new members of the Alabama Academy of Honor at the Capitol in Montgomery, Ala. “To Kill a Mockingbird” will be made available as an e-book and digital audiobook in July 2014, filling one of the biggest gaps in the electronic library. Author HarperLee said in a rare public statement Monday, April 28, 2014, issued through HarperCollins Publishers, that while she still favored “dusty” books she had signed on for making “Mockingbird” available to a “new generation.” (AP Photo/Rob Carr, File)
Harper Lee in 2007. (AP Photo/Rob Carr)

A settlement had been reached in the case, which was originally filed last year, but Lee, 88, claimed the museum was trying to change it and asked the judge to go ahead with a trial. According to her original complaint:

The town’s desire to capitalize upon the fame of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is unmistakable: Monroeville’s town logo features an image of a mockingbird and the cupola of the Old County Courthouse, which was the setting for the dramatic trial in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” … Its actual work does not touch upon history. 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 Old Monroeville Courthouse is home to the museum. It’s where Gregory Peck’s famous courthouse scenes as Atticus Finch were filmed for the 1962 movie. Peck won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Finch. The museum recently changed its Web address from tokillamockingbird.com to monroecountymuseum.org.

Lee is 88, and her penchant for reclusiveness rivals that of her character Boo Radley. She won a Pulitzer Prize for “Mockingbird,” the only book she ever published.

The museum responded in 2013 with a statement from its lawyer, released to ABC News:

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. 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.

The Birmingham News reports that Chief U.S. District Judge William Steele has scheduled a pretrial conference for Oct. 14 and a non-jury trial in November that’s expected to last two or three days.

Last year, Lee also sued her former literary agent, claiming she was duped into signing over the copyright to “Mockingbird” to him and his company. They also settled out of court.

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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