Harper Lee Sues Her Hometown
Is the real-life Maycomb exploiting its connection to To Kill A Mockingbird?
Late last month, news came out that To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee is suing her hometown museum for its ability to profit from her work. Located in the old courthouse where Lee would sit and watch her father at work, Monroe County Heritage Museum is a must-see during any literary pilgrimage to Monroeville, Alabama. For a town that has always celebrated its hometown author, the museum is a tangible place to see the root of her inspiration and pick up a few souvenirs. It’s no secret that Monroeville has relied on its connection to Harper Lee and Mockingbird to draw tourists and maintain a healthy economy, but if anything the town has shielded Lee from the public eye, not exploited her.
At age 87, she seems to feel differently now – or maybe it’s just her attorneys who do. The suit (case No. 1:13-cv-490) was filed October 10 and alleges:
Monroeville (the county seat of Monroe County, Alabama) is Harper Lee’s home. 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. The lightly-populated rural county is also home to the Museum. The Museum seeks to profit from the unauthorized use of the protected names and trademarks of “Harper Lee” and “To Kill A Mockingbird.” It is a substantial business that generated over $500,000 in revenue for 2011, the last year for which figures are available.
According to the suit, Lee has asked the museum to cease and desist from profiting from her name, but longtime board member of the museum and owner of Radley’s Fountain Grille in town Sam Therrell told Reuters that the only time Lee had a problem with the museum was when a 2001 cookbook came out and used the name “Calpurnia.” The museum withdrew the book.
Museum Executive Director Stephanie Rogers was also quoted in the Reuters article as saying Lee never requested a fee and sent the museum a note in 2010 in which she referred to them as her “friends.” “It’s unfortunate, and we’re sad about it,” Rogers told Deep South about the suit.
Lee’s lawyers are seeking a trademark application for the book, similar to an issue that came up over the summer, when it was revealed that Lee did not own the copyright to her book. A lawsuit filed in May stated that she had been “duped” into assigning the copyright to her literary agent Samuel Pinkus. The case was settled in September, and details were not released but the outcome was said to be favorable for Lee. (A search for “To Kill A Mockingbird” on the U.S. Patent and Trademark office’s electronic search system shows a trademark for clothing for men, women and children owned by Harper Lee.)
The whole saga is a confusing he said/she said, who owns what deal, and it’s important to keep in mind that Lee is in her late eighties, hard of hearing and with failing eyesight. Maybe she’s just trying to get her affairs in order so that Mockingbird can live on in a fashion she’s comfortable with or maybe she’s being taken advantage of by lawyers and small-town politics. It’s hard to know how much of this is actually coming from Lee herself.
For now, the museum’s exhibits on both Lee and her childhood friend Truman Capote remain, along with branded t-shirts, kitchen towels, magnets, posters and other souvenir items in the gift shop. The Monroeville Players’ annual production of “To Kill A Mockingbird” is also held on the grounds of the museum each April, with the final scenes performed inside the courtroom. A birdbath monument to Atticus Finch stands in front of the museum. Across the street, a mural painted on the side of a brick building depicts a scene from the book, and 2.5 miles away a historic marker is located at the site where Lee and Capote’s houses once stood, next to Mel’s Dairy Dream.
Is it all just capitalization or a charming tribute to a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who made her hometown proud? You may have to visit the real-life Maycomb to decide for yourself.