The heartbreaking story of how Harper Lee claimed she was robbed of the copyright to her iconic novel

One of America’s most iconic writers, Harper Lee, has died at the age of 89, after leading a famously reclusive life following the 1960 publication of the literary classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

While Lee rarely entered the public eye, she did wage a public court battle in recent years claiming her agent essentially stole the copyright for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about racial injustice in the South.

Her 2013 lawsuit against her former agent, Samuel Pinkus, has since been settled, but the complaint gained relevance during Harper’s final years. If the allegations are true, it’s a cautionary tale for ageing artists whose agents might take advantage of them — even though they’re supposed to be acting on their behalf.

In her lawsuit, Lee alleged that in 2007, Pinkus took the “extraordinary step” of arranging for Lee to assign the copyright for “To Kill a Mockingbird” to a company he controlled, Veritas Media Inc. (VMI). It’s not clear why Lee would assign her lucrative copyright to VMI. Indeed, she said she had no recollection of discussing the document or signing it.

The complaint painted Lee and her lawyer, who happened to be her elderly sister, Alice, as incredibly vulnerable. From the complaint:

“For over 15 years, she [Harper Lee] has suffered from increasingly serious deafness and, for 6-7 years, macular degeneration, which makes it difficult for her to read documents not printed in very large type.

In June 2007, she suffered a stroke, making it difficult for her to move around easily, but not affecting her mental capabilities. Until late 2011, Harper Lee’s lawyer was her older sister, Alice Lee, now 101 years old. Alice Lee’s deafness began about 20 years ago, and she eventually became profoundly deaf; starting around 2006, she relied on lip-reading.”

The lawsuit suggested Lee’s agent took advantage of her frail state to transfer the copyright.

“Pinkus knew that Harper Lee was an elderly woman with physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to read and see. He also knew that Harper Lee and her sister (and lawyer) relied on and trusted him,” the lawsuit stated. “Pinkus abused that trust and took advantage of Harper Lee’s physical condition … to engineer the assignment of her copyright in a document that did not even ensure her a contractual right to income.”

Eventually, in 2012, her real-estate lawyer, Tonja Carter, pressured Pinkus to transfer the copyright back to Lee, the lawsuit claims. However, the copyright reassignment agreement specified that Pinkus and his companies would still be able to get commissions as Lee’s agents, according to her complaint.

Lee’s lawsuit sought an order forcing Pinkus and his associated companies to forfeit “whatever rights they own” in the “To Kill a Mockingbird” copyright, as well as forfeit any commissions received since the 2007 reassignment. While the terms of the 2013 settlement weren’t made clear, it’s possible Pinkus agreed to some of Lee’s demands in exchange for the author agreeing to dismiss the suit.

This is not the only legal fight in which Lee was involved before her death. In 2013, she sued a small museum in Monroeville, Alabama, where she was born and raised, for allegedly exploiting her fame without giving her anything in return.

A childhood friend of Truman Capote, Lee achieved wide fame for her 1960 novel about a 6-year-old girl, Scout, whose lawyer father defends a black man accused of raping a white woman in Alabama. She hammered away at a second novel for years and then started a book about a serial killer in the 1980s, according to The New York Times. Neither book satisfied her, nor was either one published.

Her second book, “Go Set a Watchman,” came out last year but was actually written in the 1950s — before “To Kill a Mockingbird” and focuses on the Scout character as an adult.

We reached out to lawyers for Lee and Pinkus and will update this post if we hear back.

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