Atticus Finch Embroiled in Copyright Battle

Ask a roomful of lawyers who most inspired them to a career in the law, and most hands will shoot up when you mention the name Atticus Finch. The hero of the classic Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Finch put on a heroic defense of a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman in the Old South.

Most lawyers probably have envisioned themselves saving an innocent man or righting a great wrong, but real-life lawyering can be quite different than the fictional version. Take copyrights, for example. Copyrights essentially are legal concepts that provide legal protection to the thoughts and ideas (also known as intellectual property) of writers, filmmakers and other creative individuals. Copyright law allows these individuals to profit from their labors, more importantly, prevent others from doing so. Not necessarily exciting stuff.

And now Atticus himself has become embroiled in a copyright dispute over “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Actually, not Atticus himself, but the book’s acclaimed author, Harper Lee, who recently filed a lawsuit against Samuel Pinkus, the son-in-law of her former literary agent.

In the lawsuit, Lee accuses Pinkus of duping her into assigning the copyright to her popular book in 2007 without any payment while she was in an assisted-living facility. Lee, 87, claims she has no recollection of giving up her copyright, which Pinkus returned to her in 2012 under a separate agreement. Now, she’s asking a New York federal court to force Pinkus to turn over any commissions he may have earned on the book between 2007 and 2012.

While some may consider it ironic or amusing, copyrights are important legal rights. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is Lee’s only published novel, representing a steady source of her income for more than five decades, money that is payment for creating one of the most popular and beloved literary characters of all time.

It will be up to a judge and jury to decide if the copyright transfer was proper, and what amount, if any, Lee deserves as a result of Pinkus’ alleged wrongdoing. But it is good to know that Lee will get her day in court, because if her intellectual property was stolen, then the commissions are rightfully hers. Fortunately, there are attorneys well-versed in this complicated area of law to help. And you can bet some of them were inspired to become lawyers by Lee herself through her creation of Atticus Finch.

Posted: 8/30/2013 12:00:00 AM by Editor | with 0 comments

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Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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