Owning Mockingbird

Protecting rights of a book and a title are two different things.

Nelle Harper Lee has long had the rights to her own novel (setting aside the recent unpleasantness up north that’s settled out), but owning the words ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is being taken up.  She’s suing the Monroe County Heritage Museum for using those words, her name and title, on the tees/tchotchkes they sell.

Old Monroe County Courthouse - To Kill A Mockingbird
(above, from one of my visits to the Monroe County courthouse)

From The Guardian:

The author of 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird has filed a lawsuit against Monroe County Heritage Museum in Alabama, claiming the museum earned more than $500,000 in 2011 through selling products including aprons, tea towels, clothing and coasters, all bearing her book’s name.

Now the museum’s lawyer Matthew Goforth has told Reuters: “Every single statement in the lawsuit is either false, meritless or both”. He says that in fact only $28,500 was earned from merchandise last year, with “every penny… being used to further the museum’s mission of educating the public and preserving the area’s history.”

“I find it curious that her handlers suddenly want to profit by suing the museum for essentially preserving and promoting what Ms Lee helped accomplish for this community”, he added.

As ABC reports,
Lee’s complaint argues that her book title has built enough common law protection that it can’t be used by the museum without her permission.

There are at least three important issues in the litigation, according to Leigh Ann Lindquist, an attorney specializing in trademark and copyright law with Sughrue Mion, PLLC, a law firm that is not involved in this dispute. The first is the parties’ past relationship, if any. The second is how long the museum has been selling the clothing and gift store items with “To Kill a Mockingbird” on them. The third issue in litigation will likely be when Lee first knew about the sale of these museum items.


The lawsuit claimed the museum is violating federal trademark infringement laws and federal law of unfair competition, and other laws.

One of the examples that Lee provides in the lawsuit of unauthorized use of her name in museum marketing materials says, “Restored to its 1930s appearance, our courtroom is the model for Harper Lee’s fictional courtroom settings in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.’ It’s now one of the most recognized courtrooms in America because of the popular film version of the book.”

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

The Plaquemines Parish School Board has lifted its 12-year ban of TKAM.

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