Blast from the Past: To Kill a Mockingbird

Pulitzer Prize-winning novel 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (1960)
Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (1960)

The biggest literary event this year was the release of ‘Go Set a Watchman’, Harper Lee’s much awaited sequel to the book ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. The author who had shunned all limelight since the publication of her first book has been the subject of much speculation at the hands of literary enthusiasts; Harper Lee, who vowed to never publish a book after her maiden novel, generated a great deal of interest and controversy in the literary world when Lee’s agent discovered the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman in February this year, a book purported to be written before Lee wrote the draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.

In this instalment of Blast from the Past, we take a look at all IP claims associated with the most beloved book of all times and its author.

In May 2013, Harper Lee had filed a case against Samuel Pinkus, the son-in-law of her former literary agent, who had allegedly duped Lee into signing over the copyright of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ for “no consideration”; a settlement agreement was subsequently reached between Lee and the defendant.

In December 2012, Lee filed an Intent-to-Use trademark application for the title of her novel, related to its use on clothing (the trademark application can be accessed here); Lee did this to prevent the Monroe County Heritage Museum in Monroeville (the setting of her novel) from selling merchandise bearing the book’s name. Harper Lee alleged that she had never received any money from the sale proceeds and that the museum had profited to the tune of over $500,000 in 2011 from the use of her mark.

A scene from the 1962 movie
A scene from the 1962 movie

The Monroe County Heritage Museum in turn contended that the proceeds from the sale of the souvenirs were integral to the functioning of the museum and that Lee’s novel attracted tourists to Monroe County who wanted mementos of the book. The Museum Director stated that the purpose behind selling the merchandise was to honour the novelist and that the museum is a not-for-profit organization; the museum also offers tours to the Monroe County courthouse wherein tourists can visit the courtroom which served as the setting for the 1962 movie based on the novel. Apart from this, the museum also operated a domain name, a website which is now the intellectual property of Harper Lee.

The Monroe County Heritage Museum opposed the registration of the trademark on the ground that Lee had abandoned the mark by not using it (the Notice of Opposition is available here). The case was dismissed in 2014 when Lee reached a settlement with the museum. The trademark application is still pending in the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

There are strong arguments both for and against a case for grant of trademark registration to the phrase ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’: arguing in favour of trademark registration, one might say that the phrase was popularized by its use in Lee’s novel and can be immediately associated with the novel; on the other hand, one might oppose the registration on the ground that the phrase is a generic one.

In any case, I feel that getting trademark registration for the title ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ would be easier than attempting to trademark the title of Lee’s second novel because ‘Go Set a Watchman’ is in fact a Biblical reference.

It would also be of interest to our readers to know that although authorship claims were never formally contested, many believe that To Kill a Mockingbird was written not by Harper Lee, but by her long-time friend, Truman Capote! This rumour reared its head again this year with the release of ‘Go Set a Watchman’, after fans reacted with disappointment over how the second novel did not live up to its predecessor.

While speculations over authorship of the novel continue, To Kill a Mockingbird will forever remain a classic, and its hero Atticus Finch, an inspiration to lawyers for generations to come.

[This post is part of SpicyIP’s series on Blast From the Past where we scour interesting IP related trivia from yesteryears. You can read some of our earlier posts here, and if you know any interesting IP trivia, do let us know.]


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