Lee alleges that Pinkus, the son-in-law of her former agent Eugene Winick, took advantage of her age and poor health, including the residual effects of having suffered a stroke, her poor eyesight, and her impaired hearing, to dupe her into signing over the rights to her novel. He paid her royalties of some amount (it’s unclear how those royalties compared to what she should have received) and reassigned the copyright back to her in 2012, but Lee alleges in this lawsuit that Pinkus breached his fiduciary duties (by self-dealing, failing to be truthful, and failing to ‘work’ the copyright to maximize royalties) and manipulated her into assigning away the copyright as part of a complicated scheme to avoid paying back Winick’s agency for commissions he diverted while Winick was ill.
From the complaint, filed on May 3, 2013, it’s unclear whether or not Lee has suffered an economic harm (she might have received all of the income she was entitled to receive), but it makes sense that she would sue to clarify the status of her copyright and for a full accounting of those royalties.
Interestingly, the complaint alleges, among other alleged breaches of fiduciary duty, that Pinkus failed to “work the copyright,” including by “not respond[ing] to offers by HarperCollins to discuss the licensing of e-book rights.” Back in October, when I wrote about Lee’s 2006 letter to Oprah decrying the use of “cold metal” to read books, I noted how To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t available as an e-book. It’s fascinating to learn that Lee might not have been the one to stand in the way of digital access to her work.
Overall, the complaint is a difficult set of allegations to untangle. I am interested in literary lawsuits, such as the Faulkner estate’s frivolous attempt to dismantle copyright law’s fair use doctrine, but I struggle to articulate my reaction to Lee’s allegations.
I read To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time as a kid, and the novel inspired me to go to law school. Many in my profession can genuinely say the same, even though most abandon their dreams of vindicating the rights of the oppressed in favor of the ample pay that comes with maintaining and expanding the hegemony of corporations.*
It’s sad to think someone may have preyed upon one of our literary heroes, but in the end this looks less like a scheme unique to authors and more like yet another case of a duplicitous person in a position of trust manipulating an elder with medical problems for their own gain (allegedly). Unfortunately, elder financial abuse is common, and it’s always a sad situation, whether the victim is a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist duped out of her copyright or a factory worker swindled out of her savings.
*It’s hard to resist when we graduate with so much debt.