Where’s Atticus Finch when you need him?

Finch, of course, is the honest lawyer, a heroic seeker of justice and hero of Harper Lee’s novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The intensely private Lee has sadly made new headlines for a lawsuit she has brought against the son-in-law of her former literary agent over the copyright for the only novel she ever wrote. Finch, though unsuccessful in his most important case, bolstered the image of the profession and is said to have inspired young men and women to take up the law.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Manhattan, which seeks unspecified damages, alleges Samuel Pinkus failed to properly protect the copyright of the book after his father-in-law, Eugene Winick — who had represented Lee as a literary agent — became ill a decade ago, according to an Associated Press story.

Author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” Harper Lee, in an undated photo, in a local courthouse while visiting her home town. (Donald Uhrbrock – TIME & LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGE)

In the lawsuit, Lee, who is 87 and lives in Monroeville, Ala., says Pinkus took advantage of her failing health to get her to assign the book’s copyright to him and a company he controlled. In words that hark back to a courtly code, the lawsuit says: “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.” Pinkus has so far not commented.

For “Mockingbird” — the story of a black man falsely accused of the rape of a white girl, set in the 1930s South of her childhood — Lee has received a list of literary prizes, including the Pulitzer, honors and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2007.

The 1962 film adaptation, perhaps even more widely known than the book, won Gregory Peck an Academy Award and the lifelong friendship of Lee, who gave him the pocket watch of her late father, the model for Finch.

With its events seen through the eyes of children, some have said “To Kill a Mockingbird” works best as a children’s story, though some schools once banned it for its racial theme, as well as profanity and racial slurs.

Long ago, though, it settled into its place as an American classic, admired worldwide, touching millions, including Oprah Winfrey, who published a letter from Lee about her love of books in “O” magazine.

It was notable because Lee seldom gave speeches or interviews, asserting she had said everything she needed to in her novel. Now, we’ll hear more about “Mockingbird,” with lawyers again playing a prominent role in the real-life case drawing new attention to Harper Lee.


Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3