Many people will try to take advantage of the sick and elderly by having them sign away their rights when they are vulnerable. However, when someone in a compromised position signs a legal document, a court of law may choose not to find that document to be binding.
Such is allegedly the case with Harper Lee, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, in signing her copyright over to her agent. Eugene Winick represented Lee for more than 40 years. When Winick fell ill in 2002, his son-in-law, Samuel Pinkus, took over many of Winick’s clients. Lee has recently filed a lawsuit in Manhattan to regain control of her copyright.
According to the lawsuit, in 2007, Pinkus “engaged in a scheme to dupe” the then 80-year-old Lee into signing over her copyright for “To Kill a Mockingbird” without payment. At the time, Lee was recovering from a stroke in an assisted-living facility. The complaint alleges that, “Pinkus knew that Harper Lee was an elderly woman with physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to read and see”. Lee says she has no memory of agreeing to sign over her copyright.
The transfer allegedly secured for Pinkus “irrevocable” interest in the income derived from her book. It also helped him to avoid paying legal obligations to his father-in-law’s company for royalties that Pinkus misappropriated.
Although the copyright was reassigned to Lee last year as a result of a separate legal action, Pinkus was allegedly still receiving royalties from the novel as of this year, the complaint alleges. The current lawsuit is asking that any commissions Pinkus has received since 2007 be returned to Lee.
The lawsuit also claims that Pinkus has failed to provide royalty statements in recent years to explain money earned by the book. Additionally, Pinkus allegedly failed to respond to offers by HarperCollins to discuss licensing e-book rights and did not respond to the publisher’s request for assistance related to the book’s 50th anniversary.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” was published in 1960 and is Lee’s only published book. It is considered a classic and has sold more than 30 million copies.