July 11, 2013 at 8:41 AM ET
Harper Lee is getting more and more like her famous protagonist, Atticus Finch. In a recent lawsuit, she's defending herself against someone close to her whom she alleges took advantage of her declining hearing and eyesight — her own literary agent, Samuel Pinkus — and duped her out of the rights to her own classic, "To Kill a Mockingbird." She's taken the case to federal court in New York, to regain her copyright and royalties for her Pulitzer Prize-winning book.
Lee is not the only author who has faced fights for the fruits of her labor. She's in some pretty elite company among authors of great American classics (and some British ones too) who have faced literary lawsuits. Here are five of them.
J.D. Salinger: In 2009, just before his death, reclusive author Salinger sued to prevent the publication of a sequel to his 1951 novel, "The Catcher in the Rye," when Fredrik Colting (using the pen name John David California) wrote a follow-up called "60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye." (Holden Caulfield escapes from his retirement home and reunites with his sister). "The sequel is not a parody and it does not comment upon or criticize the original," Salinger's suit said. "It is a ripoff."
Two years later, the lawsuit was settled when Colting agreed to change the title and not sell the book in the U.S. or Canada until 2080, when "The Catcher in the Rye" becomes public domain. This kind of sequel-itis has affected many an author; Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind," was unofficially continued in Alice Randall's "The Wind Done Gone" in 2001, despite the sanctioned follow-up "Scarlett" in 1991. Since Randall and many others who express their sincerest forms of flattery are usually able to claim parody, Salinger's victory was rare. Salinger previously won a separate suit in 1987 to prevent his unpublished letters from being quoted in an unauthorized biography by Ian Hamilton.
Ernest Hemingway: The author's estate objected to a biography, suing Random House for a "personal memoir" published in 1966 called "Papa Hemingway," written by the author's friend A.E. Hotchner, which quoted from their conversations. The 1968 suit questioned whether Hemingway's words, when spoken in conversation, were subject to common-law copyright, even if he hadn't written them down. Injunctions failed and the suit was dismissed.
John Steinbeck: More than 40 years after he died, Steinbeck's estate continues a family feud worthy of one of his novels. When the author of "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Of Mice and Men" died in 1968, his will passed most of his estate to his third wife Elaine, including future profits from his works. But his will neglected to mention copyrights, so Steinbeck's sons sued his wife over copyrights and royalties (the suit was settled in 1983). When Elaine Steinbeck died in 2003, she left her Steinbeck copyrights to her family, excluding his. Steinbeck's only living son Thomas and his niece Blake Smyle initially filed suit against her estate as well as Steinbeck's literary agency. The suit, which called the the squabble a "30-year hidden conspiracy to deprive John Steinbeck's blood heirs of their rights," claimed Elaine violated the 1983 settlement. This suit was dismissed in 2008, but his descendants continued the fight for years, filing a second lawsuit and appealing rulings.
William Faulkner: Faulkner's estate has also been busy in court, defending the author against what they view as improper quoting of his material. In just the last year, two suits were filed: one against Sony regarding Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" film, which they claimed was adapted from Faulkner's "Requiem for a Nun," and another against defense contractor Northrop Grumman over a full-page ad in the Washington Post, which included the line, "We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it." (The quote is from an essay Faulkner wrote in Harper's magazine in 1956.) That lawsuit has since been settled and the terms are sealed.
J.K. Rowling: In one copyright and trademark infringement suit in 1999, Kathleen Stouffer claimed, among other things, that she had invented the word "Muggles" (citing her 1984 books, "'The Legend of Rah and the Muggles" and "Larry Potter and His Best Friend Lily").
Rowling, author of the "Harry Potter" series, countersued in 2002, and the court found in her favor. Separately, Rowling was accused in 2009 of plagiarizing from Adrian Jacobs. His estate claimed "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," published in 2000, borrowed its themes and settings from the late author's 1987 book, "Willy the Wizard No. I: Livid Land." (Both books involve boy wizards competing in magic tournaments). A judge dismissed the suit in 2011, saying, "Any serious comparison of the two strains credulity."
Like Salinger, Rowling also objected to fan fiction continuing her series without her when G. Norman Lippert wrote "James Potter and the Hall of Elders' Crossing," describing the adventures of Harry's son during his first year at Hogwarts. Rowling threatened to sue in 2007, but later changed her mind, saying that she supported the endeavor. Lippert's sequels ("James Potter and the Curse of the Gatekeeper," "James Potter and the Vault of Destinies," and "James Potter and the Morrigan Web") soon followed. Unlike Salinger or Mitchell before her, Rowling realized these types of transformative "tributes" are inevitable — hence the onslaught of works as wide and varied as "Wide Sargasso Sea" and "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."