Harper Lee is suing her former literary agent, saying he duped her into signing over her copyright.
Nelle Harper Lee was 34 when her one-and-only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published to great acclaim. She received a Pulitzer prize in 1961, and Gregory Peck starred in a movie of the same name in 1962. The international best-seller has been translated into dozens of languages.
Fifty-three years later, the royalties and commissions from the book continue to pour in from around the world. After decades of avoiding the limelight and attention To Kill a Mockingbird brought with it, the frail 87-year-old has re-entered the public eye with a lawsuit against a former literary agent — Samuel Pinkus of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.
The lawsuit claims Pinkus duped the elderly author into signing over the copyright in 2007 to his company, Veritas Media. Lee, 87, does not recall any discussion with Pinkus about transferring the copyright, or signing a document to do so, court papers said.
Transfer of ownership of the copyright "is a gross example of self-dealing," the lawsuit said. "Pinkus engineered such a transfer as part of a scheme to secure to himself an irrevocable interest in the income stream from Harper Lee's copyright and to avoid his legal obligations to M&O under the arbitration decision."
M&O refers to McIntosh & Otis, a New York City literary agency that Pinkus left in 2004 and which is also now suing him. The agency claims Pinkus tried to hide Veritas' assets so he would not have to pay M&O a percentage of the commissions he got from clients he took with him when he left the agency to go out on his own.
Meanwhile, Pinkus' most famous client, Lee, who lives in Monroeville, Ala., has become increasingly deaf in the last 15 years, court papers said. Her eyesight is failing due to macular degeneration. She has lived in an assisted-living facility since suffering a stroke in 2007. Pinkus visited her often in Alabama, particularly if he wanted her to sign papers, the lawsuit said.
Lee has "earned substantial royalties" from her book over the years, the lawsuit said. Veritas Media received $180,000 in commissions in 2008 and 2009 from HarperCollins Publishers alone. Veritas' commission was 10 percent of the total.
A court document in the M&O lawsuit said Veritas received $1.69 million in royalties on behalf of Lee for the six-month period ending in December 2009.
"The irony is that she shunned the limelight and now, of course, she's right in the middle of it," said Mary McDonagh Murphy of Ossining, N.Y., whose documentary, Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird, was released in 2011.
Family rift at battle front
Lee's very public battle is the subject of a six-page spread in the August issue of Vanity Fair, with the headline To Steal a Mockingbird? Accounts of the litigation have been ubiquitous since Lee filed her lawsuit in May. Actress Mia Farrow tweeted this after reading Slate's article: "agent Samuel Pinkus should return to Harper Lee the copyright to her book To Kill a Mockingbird #shame."
Pinkus did not respond to a phone message seeking comment. A woman who answered the door at the Hastings-on-Hudson home of Pinkus and Leigh Ann Winick, also named as a defendant in both lawsuits, said she did not want to speak with The Journal News. A neighbor who recently visited Antoinette's Patisserie in the village — a cafe Pinkus also frequents — shook her head emphatically when asked to speak about him.
Murphy said she corresponded and met with Pinkus several times while working on the documentary, and she ran into him at Lee's sister's 100th birthday party in 2011, "so he was definitely a close friend of the family and there was great affection for him."
It's not customary for someone to sign over a copyright to an agent, said Pace University Law School professor Ann Bartow and New York City lawyer Lloyd Jassin, experts in intellectual property and copyright law.
"Assuming even part of the allegations are true, then it would appear there is some serious bad behavior," Bartow said.
Both the Lee and the M&O lawsuits point to a family rift.
Pinkus' father-in-law, Eugene Winick, is CEO of McIntosh & Otis and his sister-in-law Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein is president. When Pinkus jumped ship to start Veritas, he took Lee, mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark, The Joy of Cooking Trusts and novelist Noah Gordon with him.
A statement released by Rubinstein said the 85-year-old agency "maintains the utmost moral and ethical standards." M&O said it represented Lee "exclusively without dispute or incident for decades" and "had no knowledge of, or involvement in, the alleged scheme of Sam Pinkus to deprive Harper Lee of her copyrights."
The defendants are seeking to have Winick – Pinkus' wife and Rubenstein's sister – dismissed from the M&O complaint.
Pinkus' response to M&O's lawsuit said it "is, in many ways its own work of fiction," is full of "misleading plot holes," and it "cribs" from Lee's complaint.
McIntosh & Otis won a $850,000 arbitration award with interest against Pinkus over the lost commission money — some of it from Mockingbird license agreements — but as of mid-June had received nothing.
In her lawsuit, Lee accuses Pinkus of ignoring his "duty of loyalty and diligence" as her agent. She and her sister, Alice — the author's lawyer until late 2011 — "trusted and relied on" M&O and "worked amicably with the agency for over 40 years," said the complaint, filed in federal court for the Southern District of New York. Pinkus, for example, didn't respond to offers from HarperCollins about licensing e-book rights.
The author wants forfeiture of all commissions Pinkus and his companies received after the copyright assignment in 2007; damages; and that Pinkus, Winick and their companies assign whatever copyright rights they own to Lee. The lawsuit doesn't accuse Pinkus of diverting any of the royalties from Lee.
Multiple Pinkus companies corresponded with HarperCollins and foreign agents over several years on Lee's behalf, court papers said. In 2011, he signed the copyright from Veritas Media to Philologus Procurator Inc., another business he created. Under pressure from Lee's lawyer, Philologus Procurator assigned the copyright back to her in an April 13, 2012, letter, the author's lawsuit states. But, the letter also said Pinkus' companies would continue to have the right to receive commissions as her agent.
Lee's lawyer orally fired Pinkus in April 2012, and she discharged him and the companies she knew about in December 2012 and January 2013 letters. In March 2013, however, Philologus Procurator instructed HarperCollins and foreign subagents — Mockingbird generates untold income from overseas sales — about where to send royalties for the six-month period ending Dec. 31, 2012. After learning, however, that the copyright had gone back to Lee, one of the subagents refused to give Pinkus' company the money.
Ruth Harlow, the attorney for Pinkus and the other named defendants, said in July she could not comment on the case. The judge recently granted a third extension to file a response, until Aug. 16. Pinkus' lawyer maintained that the extra time might yield a settlement with Lee.
New copyright deals
When Lee's book was first published in 1960, the length of the copyright under federal law was 56 years, or 2016. That means in three years, Lee could renegotiate with HarperCollins or choose another publisher. Other licensing agreements surrounding the iconic book could also change.
However, federal law has since changed the copyright term to 95 years, or 2055 for Lee. "For rare works, like To Kill a Mockingbird, it's a huge benefit to the author or the author's heirs," Bartow, the Pace Law professor, said about the ability to renegotiate how income from a book is distributed.
Jassin, the New York City lawyer, agreed, saying it gives authors "a second chance to get a better deal."
"Most of the (renegotiations) in my experience end in renewing your vows, but you get a larger ring based on the years that you've served," he said.
Lee's lawsuit makes reference to Pinkus filing notice that he intended to renegotiate on her behalf.
"You can impute bad motive, or you can give him the benefit of the doubt that this had something to do with his being able to serve (notice) ... and negotiate on her behalf," Jassin said, although an author can give someone that authority without signing over the copyright.
Hugh Van Dusen, vice president and executive editor at HarperCollins, said he worked with Pinkus when seeking permissions related to the book. Pinkus was hard to reach by phone but replied to emails, he said.
"My impression was that he was pretty much on top of things," said Van Dusen, who lives in Yorktown and New York City.
About 750,000 copies of To Kill a Mockingbird sell each year in the United States and Canada. The number climbed to 950,000 in the 50th anniversary year, he said.
Van Dusen said he thinks the often-cited figure that 30 million copies have sold is "grossly understated." It's more like 50 million, he said, in the U.S. and Canada between HarperCollins and Warner, which publishes a mass-market paperback. That doesn't include the British edition and all the translations.
It would be difficult to overestimate the book's enduring impact.
"People think this is over, it's not over," author Lee Smith says in Murphy's documentary. "It still has this galvanizing effect on a young reader. It remains as relevant today as it was the very day it was written. It never ages."