More shady legal trouble over the rights to American classic To Kill a Mockingbird

Many Americans read To Kill a Mockingbird in school. It's a great book. It was also, curiously, the only book that author Harper Lee published — at least until shortly after her death, when an earlier draft of Mockingbird was published as Go Set a Watchmen. That book made plenty of money, but its release was also surrounded by questions of elder abuse, copyright infringement, and fraud.

These intellectual property issues weren't just limited to the novel, either. Lee had given the stage adaptation rights to the playwright Christopher Sergel in the late 1980s; that version has been performed throughout the US and London, and has remained a consistently popular choice among American high school theatre departments and community theatre groups — although the performance rights carved out an exception for a potential future commercial adaptation, like what you'd find on Broadway. About a week before Lee's death (and all the aforementioned shadiness), however, producer Scott Rudin announced plans for a new Broadway-bound adaptation of the book, written by Aaron Sorkin. By all accounts, that production was incredibly successful — despite the fact that the Harper Lee estate sued to try and stop it from happening.

It gets uglier: the Broadway adaptation also sued high schools across America, forcing them to stop performances of the Sergel version of the script from the 80s/90s, claiming that Rudin and Sorkin held the exclusive rights to perform a theatrical adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. Rudin eventually offered to allow existing productions to license the Sorkin version of the script (which is frankly a shitty compromise, especially since the Lee estate was so opposed to that version).

After Mockingbird closed on Broadway, producer Scott Rudin had plans to tour the production to cities across the country — a pretty common step for any Broadway investment. But then, another plot twist: Dramatic Publishing Company, who holds the rights to that older Sergel version of the script, won a $2.5 million dollar lawsuit against the Harper Lee estate for violating their contract regarding the rights to the story (thanks to Rudin's efforts to shut down those other productions).

Now, Dramatic Publishing Company is engaged in another lawsuit battle with the Rudin/Sorkin production to prevent the new adaptation from appearing anywhere other than Broadway or London's West End. From The New York Times:

This week, the producers of the Sorkin script filed a lawsuit against the rightsholders of the Sergel script, asking a judge to allow a large swath of theaters and other venues across the country to present productions of either version. The producers are seeking to overcome an arbitration ruling finding that the Sergel script has exclusive rights to most markets beyond Broadway, the West End, and the current national tour.


[Rudin and Sorkin's producing company] said in its complaint that it was challenging what it described as Dramatic Publishing Company's "erroneous claim that the acclaimed Aaron Sorkin adaptation cannot be staged by any regional, local or community theaters, colleges, high schools, churches, clubs or any other amateur groups anywhere in the United States, including performances via a planned non-Equity tour that will bring the Sorkin Play to theaters across the country."

Once you get into the nitty gritty, it's a pretty fascinating battle over intellectual property rights, which exposes a lot of the toxicity and problems in the way such things are handled in America. (I, for one, am at least tickled at the idea of school and community theatre productions of Mockingbird blackballing the Broadway show and preventing it from making any more money — both because David-and-Goliath stories are fun, and because Scott Rudin is famously a dick within the theatrical industry, and on an individual level).

Courtroom Drama: New Legal Battle Over 'To Kill a Mockingbird' [Michael Paulson and Alexandra Alter / The New York Times]

Harper Lee Estate Told to Pay $2.5 Million in Dispute Over 'Mockingbird' Plays [Alexandra Alter / The New York Times]

Harper Lee's Estate Sues Over Broadway Version of 'Mockingbird' [Alexandra Alter and Michael Paulson / The New York Times]

Issue Over Two Different "To Kill a Mockingird" Scripts are Forcing Local Theatres to Cancel Upcoming Productions [Chris Peterson / OnStage Blog]

Image: San Jose Public Library / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Full disclosure: I also write for Wirecutter, which is owned by the New York Times Company, which publishes the New York Times