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‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ author Harper Lee seeks to reinstate lawsuit against museum

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Harper Lee puts request to district judge, saying Alabama museum has set additional terms to settlement

Harper Lee’s settlement with the local museum that the To Kill a Mockingbird author had accused of exploiting her fame, has fallen through, according to local reports.

Lee brought a lawsuit last year against the Monroeville, Alabama museum over its sale of souvenirs and memorabilia featuring her name, and the title of her only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. The case from the author claimed the museum “seeks to profit from the unauthorised use of the protected names and trademarks of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird”, and that 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”.

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The words To Kill A Mockingbird are included on items for sale from clothes to soaps, magnets and cushions, said the suit, “with intent to confuse, mislead and deceive the public into believing defendant’s goods come from plaintiff or are in some manner associated with or endorsed by plaintiff”.

The lawsuit claimed that in the past, when the now-88-year-old author’s health “was better”, the museum would respond “grudgingly but compliantly with demands to cease and desist from infringing activity”. It also mentioned the museum’s publication of a Calpurnia’s Cook Book, drawing on a character from the novel, which was pulled from sale. “Now, though, things are different. Ms Lee suffered a stroke and is in ill health. The Defendant 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” said the suit, which sought damages and an injunction.

The case was described as “false” and “meritless” by the museum. The museum’s lawyer told Reuters that it only earned $28,500 (£16,870) from its merchandise sales in 2012 – Lee’s suit claimed it earned more than $500,000 (£295,000) in 2011 – and that “every penny of that is being used to further the museum’s mission of educating the public and preserving the area’s history”.

“I find it curious that her handlers suddenly want to profit by suing the museum for essentially preserving and promoting what Ms Lee helped accomplish for this community,” lawyer Matthew Goforth told Reuters at the time, adding: “The museum is squarely within its rights to carry out its mission as it always has.”

The suit was settled in February, but Tuesday the Alabama website al.com reported that Lee’s lawyer had asked a federal judge to reinstate the lawsuit, saying that the museum had refused to move forward with the original settlement agreement without additional terms.

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“Under these circumstances plaintiff has no choice but to reinstate the case given the time constraints involved,” wrote Lee’s lawyer, Norman Stockman.

A more detailed explanation has now been requested by chief US district judge William Steele, looking to find out whether or not a written, signed agreement exists. If it does, he wrote in his order, “the plaintiff cannot obtain reinstatement of the action but must pursue an independent action to enforce the settlement agreement”.

“The plaintiff asserts that the defendant is backtracking, but she has not asserted that the settlement agreement remains unexecuted,” Steele wrote.

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To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, and has sold more than 30m copies in English around the world today. Lee marked her 88th birthday in April by announcing that her story of a lawyer defending a black man accused of raping a white woman would be released digitally for the first time. The author said at the time: “I’m still old-fashioned. I love dusty old books and libraries. I am amazed and humbled that Mockingbird has survived this long. This is Mockingbird for a new generation.”

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014

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