When Our Literary Heroes Become Victims

Harper Lee Lawsuit 2013A few weeks ago, Harper Lee, the reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird, made headlines by filing a lawsuit in New York against her agent, Samuel L. Pinkus, and his affiliates.

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.


  1. In the past, I’ve worked in assisted living homes and home health care. The elderly have so many issues and troubles as it is, I hate it when people take advantage of them. I hope the truth comes out in all this and that justice prevails.

    And I can’t help but add, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD links to one of my sliest moments in high school. It’s a memory that makes me laugh and grin. It’s also a moment I hope my kids never repeat.

    1. There are quite a few books that remind me of moments that are funny in retrospect, but humiliating at the time! Books and music bring back lots of memories.

  2. Why did she only write one novel? I can’t imagine doing that. It’s like painting one painting, or making one film. It’s just something I pondered, when I taught TKAM in American lit.

    1. I’ve also wondered why she only published one (who knows how many she wrote but never shared publicly). It would be difficult to match To Kill A Mockingbird with a subsequent novel.

  3. I just heard about this lawsuit! I think it’s terrible, but like you said, this sort of thing happens often, and not just to bestselling authors. Honestly, as awful as it is to think of someone taking advantage of Harper Lee, she’s at least in a good financial situation regardless, unlike so many others who fall prey. People who take advantage of the elderly should really stop and realize that this’ll be them someday…

    1. Yeah, at least Lee is in a good financial situation (and she did receive royalties, though it’s unclear whether it was the full amount she should have received). So many other people aren’t as lucky, and their cases never get much media attention.

    1. Well, I first wanted to be an anthropologist, and then, while I was still in elementary school, I decided that I wanted to be a doctor. It wasn’t until a bit later that I decided I wanted to be a lawyer, and To Kill A Mockingbird was one of the major influences that encouraged me to pursue public interest law (my parents deserve a lot of the credit, too). In college, I thought I might go for a PhD in history, but I suppressed that thought pretty quickly.

  4. We treat our seniors so abysmally in this country, shuffling them off to horrible “homes,” and seeing them as marks rather than people to respect and watch out for. I honestly hope I die before I reach that age. I can’t think of anything worse than sitting in a chair all day, tied in to keep from falling out, peeing in diapers, and ignored by those paid to take better care of me.

    1. How we treat our elderly in this country is awful. It’s difficult and expensive to take care of someone with poor health at home, so I can understand a family’s decision to find an assisted living facility, but so many of these facilities are terrible (negligence cases abound). I am familiar with these facilities from a sex discrimination case I handled, and what I learned from it has made me decide that I’ll never allow my parents to end up in a place like that.

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