It’s sad to read of the legal controversies swirling around Harper Lee and Rosa Parks.
Both of these women are heroes of mine. Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of the main reasons I decided to apply for law school. And Rosa Parks inspires me by her personal courage, dignity and strength of character.
So it was discouraging to learn that the 88-year-old Lee has been mired in multiple lawsuits – including a nasty squabble with a museum in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama – and that some of the most precious personal items of Ms. Parks are being sold to the highest bidder.
The law is, indeed, a double-edged sword.
To Sue a Mockingbird
In 2013, Ms. Lee – in poor health and residing in an Alabama assisted-living facility – brought a lawsuit against the Monroe County Heritage Museum for profiting from her name and novel without permission. The museum, located in a courthouse in Monroeville, was selling merchandise related to her masterwork and using “tokillamockingbird.com” as its web address.
The parties reached a settlement last February. But a few months later, Ms. Lee’s lawyers returned to court seeking to reinstate the case. They claimed the museum had violated the agreement. Shortly afterward, the matter was again dismissed with mutual consent.
While all this was going on, Ms. Lee was also engaged in a bitter copyright fight with her former literary agent Samuel Pinkus. From USA Today:
Lee, who won the Pulitzer prize in 1961 for To Kill a Mockingbird, alleged in her[September 2013] lawsuit that Pinkus “duped” her into signing over the copyright to the novel in 2007.
Lee, 87, who lives in Monroeville, Ala., said in the lawsuit she did not recall any discussion with Pinkus about transferring the copyright over to his company Veritas Media, or signing any document to that effect. Her lawsuit alleged the copyright assignment to him was “a gross example of self-dealing” and was intended to “secure to himself an irrevocable interest in the income stream” from sales of her book. The federal lawsuit sought forfeiture of all commissions Pinkus and his companies received after the copyright assignment in 2007; damages; and that Pinkus and his companies assign whatever copyright rights they own to Lee.
Terms of the settlement were not disclosed. “To Kill a Mockingbird” sells more than 750,000 copies in the U.S. and Canada each year.
Auctioning Off a Medal of Honor
Last year, a leading New York auction house was preparing to sell off a treasure trove of personal items owned by Rosa Parks valued at $10 million. The collection included her Congressional Medal of Honor and a postcard from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
There was only one problem. The Parks heirs claimed the Detroit lawyer who had been negotiating with the auction house lacked authority to do so. The sale was put on hold. Bitter wrangling ensued.
The collection was eventually bought by billionaire Warren Buffet’s son, Howard, for a bargain $4.5 million. The auction house said it lost $1 million in the process and brought a lawsuit against the lawyer who it said had botched everything.
There is a silver lining too all this: the Parks property will be going to a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving her legacy.
The lawyer in the middle of this mess is the same one who sued the hip-hop group Outkast for defamation and trademark infringement over their song “Rosa Parks.” The suit alleged Parks’ name had been used without permission and that the song lyrics (Ah-ha, hush that fuss/Everybody move to the back of the bus) portrayed the civil rights pioneer in an unflattering light.
Superstar lawyer Johnnie Cochran was brought into the case, which was settled in 2005. In yet another silver lining, the settlement agreement stipulated that the defendants would develop educational programs to teach young people about the role Rosa Parks played in making America a better place.
At least that’s something worth singing about.
- New York Times http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/05/to-sue-or-not-to-sue-harper-lee-changes-tack-again/?_r=0
- USA Today http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/books/2013/09/06/mockingbird-lawsuit-settlement/2778479/
- Professional Liability Matters http://professionalliabilitymatters.com/2014/10/07/former-lawyer-for-rosa-parks-targeted-in-new-suit/
- New York Post http://nypost.com/2014/09/30/auction-house-sues-rosa-parks-ex-lawyer-over-her-10m-estate/
- CNN http://www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/Music/04/15/parks.settlement/
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man has practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact him at 919-619-2441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.