Law in Popular Culture

Harper Lee sues hometown museum, claims trademark and cybersquatting violations

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The author of To Kill a Mockingbird has sued a museum in her Alabama hometown, accusing it of violating her trademarks and right of publicity.

The Hollywood Reporter has news of the suit filed by Harper Lee, 87, who is in an assisted living facility after suffering a stroke. Because Lee is in poor health, the suit alleges, the Monroe County Heritage Museum “apparently believes that she lacks the desire to police her trademarks, and therefore seeks to take advantage of Ms. Lee’s condition and property. The defendant is mistaken.”

The museum in Monroeville touts its restored courtroom as the model for the fictional courtroom in To Kill a Mockingbird. It also uses the domain name and sells memorabilia.

The suit claims trademark and right-of-publicity violations, cybersquatting, unfair competition and unjust enrichment.

The museum claims on tax forms that its mission is historical, the suit says, but “its primary mission is to trade upon the fictional story, settings and characters that Harper Lee created in To Kill A Mockingbird, and Harper Lee’s own renown as one of the nation’s most celebrated authors. Historical facts belong to the world, but fiction and trademarks are protected by law.”

The suit says the museum opposed Lee’s application for a trademark and has refused to pay compensation for sale of merchandise with the mark To Kill a Mockingbird.

The museum’s executive director, Stephanie Rogers, told the Hollywood Reporter she had not seen the lawsuit. “We honor her here,” Rogers said. “We don’t sell anything with her name. We sell memorabilia to those who come to see a production of To Kill a Mockingbird that we secure dramatic rights to. Everything we do is above board. I’m shocked by this.”

Last month Lee settled a different suit that claimed her agent tricked her into transferring copyright to her book.

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