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The Struggle over “To Kill A Mockingbird”

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Shutterstock/Sangoiri

Shutterstock/Sangoiri

The novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee is one of the most well-known and respected pieces of literature ever. It’s been more than fifty years since it was first published and unfortunately its story about racism and injustice is just as relevant today as it was in 1960. If you’ve never read the book, you may have seen the movie starring Gregory Peck, which is equally acclaimed.

You would think that such an exquisite work would have been legally protected by its author in every way possible. Especially considering that Lee is the daughter of a lawyer and the book is about the law.

However, intellectual property law is more forward looking and requires protecting now what might not seem profitable at the time.  Lee was not anticipating the multiples of millions in revenue that her story would generate.

However, in 2013 Lee sued Monroe County Heritage Museum alleging trademark infringement of her work among other allegations. Lee had not given permission for the museum to use her name nor anything else dealing with her novel. The Museum’s website address was www.killamockingbird.com and they have since changed it to www.monroecountymuseum.org.

The Complaint states in part, “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. … The Museum has steadfastly ignored Ms. Lee’s demands that it cease and desist from its illegal action. The Museum has even attempted to block Ms. Lee’s federal registration of her trademark in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Ms. Lee has no choice but to seek relief in this court.”

Based on the Complaint, it appears that Lee had state protection for “books” with the registered mark TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. However, that protection was not federal and did not extend to other merchandise. While Lee may not have wanted to profit from selling merchandise with her novel’s success, apparently the Museum did.

Some of the items being sold by the Museum included: aprons, t-shirts, fleece vests, tote bags, hand towels, soaps, magnets, wine bags, key chains and more. The list is quite lengthy. At one time, the Museum even sold a cookbook based on the name of one of the characters in the book. Only after a cease-and-desist demand was it taken off the market.

According to a recent Associated Press article, the case has settled, but the terms remain confidential. If you consider yourself a creative, an entrepreneur or a business owner, then take note. Protect your work and anticipate future value in your intellectual property now.

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July 2nd, 2014 at 8:37 am