October 18, 2013
If you didn’t read “To Kill A Mockingbird” in middle school, I am pretty sure you’re not American. (Do you also not like apple pie? Just asking.) If you weren’t moved by it, then I am pretty sure you are not human.
“To Kill A Mockingbird” was author Harper Lee’s one and only book – and what a book it was. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and has sold an estimated 40 million copies in 40 languages. It still sells about 750,000 copies a year (mostly to eighth-graders, I assume. Do not Wikipedia this book, eight-graders! It’s good! Really!) According to one estimate, Lee earns around $1.7 million in royalties every six months or so.
Since its publication, though, Lee largely shied away from the spotlight, becoming the second-most Reclusive Famous Author after J.D. Salinger. She hasn’t given a real interview since 1964, hasn’t published a follow-up and has resisted the temptation to license the book and its characters for merchandising opportunities.
Even so, Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, hasn’t been content to let Lee live out her life in anonymity.
The Monroe County Heritage Museum, for example, claims its courthouse is the model for “To Kill A Mockingbird’s” pivotal courtroom scene. It also sells “Mockingbird”-themed memorabilia and owns the domain name tokillamockingbird.com.
What caught my attention with this story is the museum’s claim that it’s “historical.” Apparently, it thinks that because Monroeville is Lee’s hometown and because she evidently modeled parts of Maycomb, “Mockingbird’s” fictional town, after it.
That is important because nobody can trademark or copyright historical facts. George Washington crossed the Delaware River in 1776, for example, and anybody is free to portray that in a dramatization, painting, sculpture or what have you (as long as it’s an original interpretation).
But in her lawsuit, Lee claims that the museum isn’t trafficking in history, it’s enriching itself off a fictional and copyrighted story – her story.
To me, it seems almost like the museum is blending fact with fiction. It’s adopting this posture that “To Kill A Mockingbird” really did happen, or almost happened, because Lee’s Maycomb was inspired by Monroeville.
Personally, I doubt a court will give that hazy concept of reality much weight. From an artistic perspective, though, I think it’s always interesting to examine who (if anyone) has rights to the genesis for a creative work.