To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee is suing a museum in her hometown of Monroeville to stop it from selling souvenirs with her name and the title of her Pulitzer Prize-winning book.
The lawsuit, filed last week in federal court in Mobile, said the Monroe County Heritage Museum has traded on Lee’s fame without her approval and without compensating her. It seeks an unspecified amount in damages.
“Every single statement in the lawsuit is either false, meritless, or both,” museum attorney Matt Goforth said Friday in an email.
The lawsuit comes after Lee sought a federal trademark for the title of her book when it’s used on clothing. The museum opposed her application, saying its souvenir sales are vital to its continued operation. A ruling is over a year away.
Lee’s book is set in fictional Maycomb County, but her suit says the setting was inspired by the real Monroe County where she lives in south Alabama. The museum in Monroeville has displays honoring her and presents the play “To Kill a Mockingbird” each summer in the old county courthouse courtroom, which served as a model for the movie’s courtroom. The museum pays royalties for using the play, and that is not an issue in the suit.
The suit contends the museum has profited from the unauthorized use of Lee’s name and book title through the sale of clothing and a variety of souvenirs. Its website also uses the title without any compensation, the suit says.
“Ms. Lee has 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,” the suit says.
The suit says that in August, the museum refused an offer from Lee to sell it merchandise she had authorized.
Clay Rankin, the Mobile attorney representing the 87-year-old author, did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
The museum’s Birmingham attorney said the tourist attraction is within its rights to educate the public and preserve the area’s history. “It’s sad that Harper Lee’s handlers have seen fit to attack the nonprofit museum in her hometown that has been honoring her and the town’s rich history associated with that legacy for over 20 years,” Goforth said.
The suit says the museum took in more than $500,000 in revenue in 2012. Goforth said the museum earned $28,566 from merchandise sales in 2012.
U.S. District Judge William Steele has not scheduled any hearings in the case.