June 6, 2014
This week, Harper Lee, the reclusive author of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” settled her lawsuit with the Monroe County Heritage Museum, which she had alleged was profiting from unauthorized use of her book.
“To Kill A Mockingbird” is the definition of an American classic. It won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize and has sold some 40 million copies. Lee has never really merchandized it beyond the 1962 Gregory Peck film. (She also never published another book and hasn’t given a significant interview since 1964.)
Monroeville, Alabama, however, hasn’t been nearly as demure.
Taking advantage of the fact that Lee reportedly used the area as inspiration for “Mockingbird’s” fictional Maycomb, it has spawned “Mockingbird”-themed cafes, tours and memorabilia (all of it tasteful, I’m sure.)
Arguably the biggest offender may have been the town’s Monroe County Heritage Museum. With a name like that, you might assume it was dedicated to preserving the history of the area. A quick skim of the website, though, reveals how difficult it is to find something that doesn’t “celebrate” Lee or “Mockingbird.”
In her lawsuit, Lee alleged trademark infringement and personality rights infringement, claiming the museum made $500,000 in profits in 2011 as a direct result of infringing on her rights to her own image and to “Mockingbird.”
Museum officials countered Lee’s lawsuit by pointing out that she never requested compensation. To me, that’s a pretty weak defense. She never gave permission in the first place, so it shouldn’t have been selling “Mockingbird”-themed aprons, towels, paperweights and other kitsch.
We’ll probably never know how these arguments would have stood up to each other, because this week, Lee and the museum settled their lawsuit. Terms of the settlement are confidential. In a way, that’s unfulfilling. On the other hand, it seems like an appropriate fate for a lawsuit filed by someone who removed herself from public life five decades ago.