MONTGOMERY, Ala. — “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee is at odds with a museum in her Alabama hometown that celebrates her literary achievement over use of the words in the title of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Lee is seeking a trademark for the words when they are used on clothing. The Monroe County Heritage Museum in Monroeville is opposing the application, contending the sale of souvenirs with the words is vital to its continued operation.
Lee’s New York attorney, Robert Clarida, said the 87-year-old author, who lives in Monroeville, has never received a penny from the museum’s sale of T-shirts, caps and other souvenirs. “They want to continue selling the merchandise without Ms. Lee getting any money,” he said Friday.
Museum Director Stephanie Rogers said Lee’s book drives tourism in the rural south Alabama county. She said the museum has always been supportive of Lee, and she has never said anything about the souvenirs when visiting the museum.
“I feel like all we do is honor her here,” she said.
The nonprofit organization operates several attractions in Monroeville and uses “To Kill a Mockingbird” for its website address.
The organization’s attractions include the old county courthouse housing the courtroom that served as the model for the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The courthouse draws 25,000 to 30,000 visitors annually and features a display that tells Lee’s story in her own words. In April and May, it will present its 25th annual production of the play, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Rogers said the museum pays royalties to produce the play, but it has never paid for selling the souvenirs. She said tourists want a memento of their visit, and the proceeds are the key to museum’s continued operation and its educational programs.
Museum attorney Matt Goforth said Friday, “We are hopeful this legal dispute, originally initiated by Ms. Lee’s attorneys, will not damage our relationship.”
Lee’s attorney said people occasionally show up online up selling “To Kill a Mockingbird” merchandise, but a letter to cease usually takes care of that. He said the trademark application is aimed at the museum because of its continuous sale of merchandise.
That merchandise is remaining on sale while the trademark application is pending. Attorneys on both sides said the timeline for legal arguments set by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office means the case could take a year or more.
Last week, Lee settled the lawsuit she filed to secure the copyright to her classic novel.
A federal judge in New York City approved the order dismissing the case against Samuel L. Pinkus, the son-in-law of Lee’s former literary agent, and companies he allegedly created. Two other defendants had been dropped from the suit a week earlier.
Lee’s trademark application was first reported by The Monroe Journal, the newspaper in Monroeville.