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August 2, 2013 6:29 AM   Subscribe

To Steal A Mockingbird The notoriously private author Harper Lee is now waging a public courtroom battle. Her lawsuit charges that in 2007 her agent, Samuel Pinkus, duped the frail 80-year-old Lee into assigning him the copyright to her only book, To Kill a Mockingbird—then diverted royalties from the beloved 1960 classic. (SLVF)
posted by box (38 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
(Via the AV Club)
posted by box at 6:31 AM on August 2, 2013


Hoodwinking authors out of their rights is a cottage industry in the publishing world. But you have to be some special kind of slimeball to think you can get away with doing it to Harper Lee.

and here's where I confess that I totally thought Harper Lee was a black man
posted by 256 at 6:36 AM on August 2, 2013 [11 favorites]


I bet she knows a good lawyer.
posted by cottoncandybeard at 6:44 AM on August 2, 2013 [23 favorites]


I knew Harper Lee was a white woman but for some reason it never occurred to me that she was still alive. It's like when Mandelbrot died a few years ago... these are such giant significant names that I just sorta assumed they were all long gone historical figures, though of course I should have realized TKAM was written not that long ago.
posted by kmz at 6:45 AM on August 2, 2013 [9 favorites]


Not sure how this is possible when everyone knows that Truman Capote was the true author of the book.
posted by komara at 6:49 AM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure I totally follow the shell game here, but it certainly doesn't look good. Anything but straightforward transparency to the author isn't encouraging. And, of course, Harper Lee deserves all credit and reward for having written that book.

And while the Steinbeck and Joy of Cooking situations may be more of the same, it runs smack into my belief that heirs should get their own jobs, and no-one really is entitled to the rewards for works they didn't make, but that's an old bugbear of mine unlikely to be changed anytime soon, and I don't mean to derail, only to say that my Outrage-O-Meter isn't going as high with them as for Harper Lee.
posted by Capt. Renault at 6:53 AM on August 2, 2013 [11 favorites]


If I were Mr Pinkus, I reckon I'd stay out of the woods at night.
posted by pracowity at 7:08 AM on August 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


She'll have to join Leonard Cohen on tour.
posted by yoink at 7:25 AM on August 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Next time around, have an attorney of your own personal choosing review a contract/agreement before you sign off on it
posted by Renoroc at 7:27 AM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Next time around...

This is Harper Lee. She's never had a next time around.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:29 AM on August 2, 2013 [5 favorites]


Well this makes me terribly sad.
posted by boo_radley at 7:31 AM on August 2, 2013 [28 favorites]


I don't know who this Pinkus guy is but Harper Lee wrote one of the top candidates for greatest American novel.

What I'm trying to say is: fuck that guy.
posted by Aizkolari at 7:39 AM on August 2, 2013 [6 favorites]


I don't believe in the death penalty, so I'm trying desperately to think of a punishment appropriate enough for STEALING FROM HARPER LEE.

I'm coming up empty.
posted by elmer benson at 7:41 AM on August 2, 2013 [9 favorites]


“As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it - whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, he is trash.”

In this case, replace "white men" with "laywers" and "black men" with "seniors".
posted by chavenet at 7:49 AM on August 2, 2013


@elmer benson

Forced to perform "to kill a mockingbird" as a one person play for the prison as a whole nightly while wearing only prison gear and without props for 4 years straight.
posted by NiteMayr at 7:52 AM on August 2, 2013


kmz: I knew Harper Lee was a white woman but for some reason it never occurred to me that she was still alive. It's like when Mandelbrot died a few years ago... these are such giant significant names that I just sorta assumed they were all long gone historical figures, though of course I should have realized TKAM was written not that long ago.

In Oliver Sacks' Uncle Tungsten, he writes about going to Hatton Garden as a boy to catch a glimpse of a ln elderly HG Wells. It's jarring to think of such a person from a bygone era overlapping so closely to modern times.
posted by dr_dank at 7:55 AM on August 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ok, it's time for How to Kill a Mockingbird, Part 2: First Thing We Do, Kill All the Lawyers.
posted by detachd at 8:06 AM on August 2, 2013


detachd - huh?

Unless I misread the article the guilty party was her agent, not a lawyer. At worst her lawyer made a mistake approving something the agent had her sign. Not to mention that TKAM is essentially a portrait of an idealized lawyer so a sequel excoriating them wouldn't make much sense.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:45 AM on August 2, 2013


While this is pretty dodgy - its hard to really care. She already made millions anyway.

Personally I feel the copyright should have expired years ago anyway... you know 7 - 14 years after the initial publication.
posted by mary8nne at 8:57 AM on August 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


First Thing We Do, Kill All the Lawyers.

That would be an odd takeaway from To Kill A Mockingbird.
posted by yoink at 9:19 AM on August 2, 2013 [9 favorites]


And while the Steinbeck and Joy of Cooking situations may be more of the same, it runs smack into my belief that heirs should get their own jobs,


Several of the Joy of Cooking heirs have actually worked for/on the cookbook, including producing revised versions. A lot of people hate the revised versions, but still. Other heirs do work on the literary estates rather than just periodically cashing checks. They seem to come in the news mostly when they act crazy, but some of them see literary stewardship as an important job.

Granted, reading that article, it does come across as strange the way writing a book can be one person's career, and then also seem to provide several other people with a career apiece, just by having a relationship with that author. Although, not so strange in the light of the way individuals like J.K. Rowling and E.L. James seem to take turns keeping the whole publishing industry afloat today.
posted by BibiRose at 9:35 AM on August 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


Personally I feel the copyright should have expired years ago anyway... you know 7 - 14 years after the initial publication.

Okay, here's why this is wrong. Not all books get their biggest payoff within 7-14 years of initial publication. Sometimes a writing career can take years to pay off, ideally providing the hardworking writer with a dignified retirement. Patrick O'Brian comes to mind. Sometimes it takes a movie or television series to bring the book to the public's attention. Bernard Cornwell comes to mind.

There are books that take years to hit their stride. The Great Gatsby comes to mind. Then too there are books and authors who get second winds long after the initial roll out. Much of Dashiell Hammett comes to mind. (Lillian Hellman talked his daughters out of the copyright, then marketed the hell out of the work, enriching self in the process).

It would also push publishers even further into the topical and blockbuster direction than they already are. (Yes, yes, I know - publishers are dinosaurs, doomed to imminent extinction. I'm willing to bet there's life in the old boys yet.)

It could discourage some writers from writing at all. (Yes, yes, I know - too much out there to read in the first place. I'm willing to be that there a more than a few who would either not have started or have given up earlier under a more restrictive copyright system.

it runs smack into my belief that heirs should get their own jobs, and no-one really is entitled to the rewards for works they didn't make

By that thinking, no one should be able to pass down anything to their heirs. Why is a copyright any different from a few shares of IBM? They're both stores of value, both on-going business propositions. People like to leave things to their nearest and dearest. It's one of the things that keeps them working at all.

I'm willing to compromise. I've said elsewhere, I think life of author/author's spouse and twenty years is more than fair, so that any theoretical surviving children are covered in the event of author death.

Remember, we are trying to encourage creation, not just underwrite consumption.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:52 AM on August 2, 2013 [18 favorites]


While this is pretty dodgy - its hard to really care. She already made millions anyway.

If you don't care about her getting the money, do you care about her agent allegedly being unjustly enriched?

Sometimes a writing career can take years to pay off, ideally providing the hardworking writer with a dignified retirement.

The goal of copyright as stated by the U.S. Constitution is "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts." It is to provide an incentive for people to create works, not to entitle them to an income for life. There aren't a significant number of authors who would stop writing if they could only get the maximum 28-year copyright available within the first years of the U.S.

There would, however, be significant advantages to other creators in being able to freely reuse long-since-published-and-monetized ideas after 28 years. And to the public for being able to freely use these ideas and works without restrictions or paying economic rents.
posted by grouse at 10:01 AM on August 2, 2013 [4 favorites]


Not sure how this is possible when everyone knows that Truman Capote was the true author of the book.
posted by komara at 9:49 AM on August 2


Beg pardon?
posted by magstheaxe at 10:13 AM on August 2, 2013


There's been speculation that Truman Capote actually wrote To Kill a Mockingbird.

New evidence may end the decades-old speculation that Truman Capote — not Harper Lee — wrote the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 10:24 AM on August 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Mr. Pinkus, do you really think so?
posted by cmyk at 10:29 AM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Didn't her agent propose, rather than sending book royalties to Lee, that he would give her a nickel every time somebody busted up a chiffarobe?
posted by ActingTheGoat at 10:30 AM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


New evidence may end the decades-old speculation that Truman Capote — not Harper Lee — wrote the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Spoiler alert for that 2006 story:
Dr. Wayne Flynt, retired professor of history from Auburn University discusses the basis for the persistent rumor and explains why it is indeed false.
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:30 AM on August 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


..dammit, I hate when research takes time, I finish a reply, and on preview someone else got there first.

Incidentally, if anyone's interested, there's a documentary on her, Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and 'To Kill a Mockingbird' that's currently on Netflix. I came across it wandering randomly through suggestions a few months ago, and it was really very fascinating and put a lot of things in the book in their perspective, both historically and with regards to her point of view. Apparently it was shown on PBS's "American Masters" series.
posted by mephron at 10:34 AM on August 2, 2013 [6 favorites]


While this is pretty dodgy - its hard to really care. She already made millions anyway.

Wikipedia:
In a 2011 interview with an Australian newspaper, Lee's close friend, Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, said Lee now lives in an assisted-living facility, wheelchair bound, partially blind and deaf, and suffering from memory loss.
So is it still hard to really care?
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:36 AM on August 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


There's been speculation that Truman Capote actually wrote To Kill a Mockingbird.

Women who write just one book or just one really famous book nearly always seem to attract speculation that it was really some man they knew who wrote it: Harper Lee, Mary Shelley, Margaret Mitchell. Tedious nonsense.
posted by yoink at 10:36 AM on August 2, 2013 [37 favorites]


I'm waiting for Boo Radley to weigh in on this.

I can say, at this point, this didn't raise my opinion of publishers.
posted by HuronBob at 11:49 AM on August 2, 2013


I'm waiting for Boo Radley to weigh in on this.

He did.
posted by grouse at 11:53 AM on August 2, 2013


There's also the fact that after swindling the rights, Pinkus is squatting on his new cash cow and leaving it to wither, failing to respond to requests to make an ebook edition or for help commemorating its 50th anniversary.
posted by Rhaomi at 12:00 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sure I'm mad that it's Harper Lee in particular, but I object to stealing from old ladies in general. As, with any luck, I will be one someday.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 12:18 PM on August 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Women who write just one book or just one really famous book nearly always seem to attract speculation that it was really some man they knew who wrote it: Harper Lee, Mary Shelley, Margaret Mitchell. Tedious nonsense.

Just to be clear, I was not claiming that Truman Capote wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Somebody else claimed that earlier in the thread, magstheaxe asked about it and I linked to an article supporting Lee's authorship.

I have never talked to anyone who claimed that Capote wrote TKAM who had any more evidence than, "well, she only wrote the one book and her friend was a famous author so obviously he must have written it." I agree with tedious nonsense.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 1:12 PM on August 2, 2013


Women who write just one book or just one really famous book nearly always seem to attract speculation that it was really some man they knew who wrote it: Harper Lee, Mary Shelley, Margaret Mitchell. Tedious nonsense.

Shakespeare, Einstein, Rosalind Franklin.
posted by DU at 9:45 AM on August 8, 2013


Shakespeare, Einstein, Rosalind Franklin.

Er...what about them?
posted by yoink at 10:34 AM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


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