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Trademark Law

Harper Lee settles suit against museum after judge calls defense argument ‘nebulous’

Posted Feb 21, 2014 6:45 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The author of To Kill a Mockingbird has settled her suit that claimed a museum in her Alabama hometown violated her trademarks and rights of publicity.

Details of Harper Lee’s settlement with the Monroe County Heritage Museum were not disclosed, report the Wall Street Journal Law Blog, the New York Times ArtsBeat blog and the Associated Press. A lawyer for Lee filed notice of the settlement this week, less than two weeks after a federal judge criticized defense arguments and refused to dismiss the case.

The suit had claimed the museum sought to trade on the fictional story and Harper’s Lee’s fame through the sale of aprons, soap, magnets and other merchandise. The suit also challenged the museum’s use of tokillamockingbird.com as a domain name.

In his Feb. 7 order (PDF) refusing to dismiss the case, Chief U.S. District Judge William Steele faulted the museum for failing to flesh out its arguments. The museum offered no “explanation or authority,” Steele said, for its assertion that the First Amendment protected its use of the book and author’s name. “Such bald conclusions as the defendant offers present nothing for judicial consideration,” Steele wrote.

Steele repeated his criticism as he considered the museum's other arguments, including its claim that Alabama recognizes a public-interest exception to the tort of commercial exploitation of a professional name. “Again, the court will not develop arguments the defendant has elected to present in only the most nebulous form,” Steele wrote.

The museum changed its website name to monroecountymuseum.org, and it no longer sells gifts online, the AP story points out. Instead, the website invites visitors to visit the museum gift shop or to call staff with phone orders.

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