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'To Kill a Mockingbird' author Lee sues her agent over copyright

U.S. President George W. Bush (L) awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to American novelist Harper Lee (C) in the East Room of the White
U.S. President George W. Bush (L) awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to American novelist Harper Lee (C) in the East Room of the White

By Erin Geiger Smith

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "To Kill A Mockingbird," Harper Lee, on Friday sued her literary agent, claiming he tricked her into assigning the copyright on her book to him.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Manhattan against Samuel Pinkus, the son-in-law of Lee's long-time agent, Eugene Winick, who had represented her for more than 40 years. When Winick became ill in 2002, Pinkus diverted several of Winick's clients to his own company, the lawsuit said.

According to the lawsuit, Pinkus in 2007 "engaged in a scheme to dupe" the then 80-year-old Lee into assigning her "To Kill a Mockingbird" copyright without any payment.

Lee, who is now 87 years old, resides in Monroeville, Alabama. She is rarely seen in public.

Gloria Phares, an attorney for Lee, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Pinkus engineered the transfer of Lee's rights to secure himself "irrevocable" interest in the income derived from her book and to avoid paying legal obligations he owed to his father-in-law's company for royalties that Pinkus allegedly misappropriated, the lawsuit said.

Lee was suffering from declining hearing and eyesight, and has no memory of agreeing to relinquish her rights or signing the agreement the memorializes the purported transfer, according to the court papers.

"To Kill A Mockingbird" was published in 1960 and is considered a classic. It has sold more than 30 million copies.

Pinkus did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

The lawsuit asks the court to assign any rights in the book owned by Pinkus or any entities controlled by him to Lee, and asks that any commissions Pinkus received since the 2007 date be returned to her.

Pinkus in recent years has not provided royalty statements to explain money earned by the book, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also alleged Pinkus failed to respond to offers by publisher HarperCollins to discuss licensing e-book rights and did not respond to the publisher's request for assistance related to the 50th anniversary of the publishing of "To Kill A Mockingbird."

"To Kill A Mockingbird" tells the story of two children growing up in a small southern town. The book addresses racial injustice, as the children's attorney father is selected to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. The man is convicted despite his innocence.

It is the only novel that Lee ever published.

(Reporting By Erin Geiger Smith in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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