‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ novelist sues over trademark

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(CNN) — Author Harper Lee has not published a novel in more than a half-century, but her words in federal court seek to protect the 87-year-old’s best-known intellectual property, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The Alabama writer has sued her hometown Monroe County Heritage Museum for trademark infringement, saying it is illegally using her fame for its own gain.

“The museum seeks to profit from the unauthorized use of the protected names and trademarks of ‘Harper Lee’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ It is a substantial business that generated over $500,000 in revenue for 2011, the last year for which figures are available,” said the lawsuit filed last week. “But its actual work does not touch upon history. Rather, its primary mission is to trade upon the fictional story, settings and characters that Harper Lee created.”

The reclusive author still lives in the county. about 105 miles from Montgomery in the southern part of the state. It was the inspiration for the fictional Maycomb County. Set in the segregated South, the 1960 novel — the only one Lee wrote– won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into an Academy Award-winning movie.

It deals with a local attorney’s relationship with his children and his community as he defends an African-American man accused of raping a white woman during the Jim Crow 1930s. Its themes of racial injustice and waning innocence, grounded in characters possessing courage and tolerance, have inspired millions of readers.

The museum fully acknowledges its most famous resident. Its website is www.tokillamockingbird.com and says it “maintains and operates six historic sites in Monroe County, Ala., that collectively interpret the area’s rich history,” including “the literary legacy of (fellow author) Truman Capote and Harper Lee,” who were childhood friends.

A gift shop — called the Bird’s Nest — sells memorabilia, T-shirts, even cookware about the book, and the museum stages a “To Kill a Mockingbird” play each spring.

An attorney for the facility strongly denied Lee’s allegations.

“Every single statement in the lawsuit is either false, meritless, or both,” said Matthew Goforth, a Birmingham-based attorney hired for the museum. “It is sad that Harper Lee’s greedy handlers have seen fit to attack the non-profit museum in her hometown that has been honoring her legacy and the town’s rich history associated with that legacy for over 20 years. Unfortunately for Harper Lee, those handlers are doing nothing but squandering her money with this lawsuit. The museum is squarely within its rights to carry out its mission as it always has.”

Lee in her lawsuit acknowledged the novel’s impact in her community. “The town’s desire to capitalize upon the fame of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird ‘ is unmistakable: Monroeville’s town logo features an image of a mockingbird and the cupola of the Old County Courthouse, which was the setting for the dramatic trial in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.'”

Her lawyers said they had earlier attempted to stop the museum from any unauthorized commercial use of the novel, and claimed it tried to block her federal registration of the “To Kill a Mockingbird” trademark.

“Historical facts belong to the world, but fiction and trademarks are protected by law,” the lawsuit says.

Nelle Harper Lee — her full name — separately settled a lawsuit last month in which she claimed she was “duped” into signing over the copyright to her book six years ago. Her current lawsuit says the novel still sells about a million copies a year.

The current case is Lee v. Monroe County Heritage Museum, Inc. (1:13-cv-490).

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