Harper Lee sues literary agent over Mockingbird

Harper Lee, author of the American classic To Kill A Mockingbird, is seen in 2007. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Harper Lee, the 87-year-old author of the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, is suing her literary agent, claiming his company exploited her ill health to gain control of her copyright and cheat her of royalties, Bloomberg reports.

The reclusive writer was staying in an assisted-living facility after suffering a stroke in 2007, where she signed over her copyright ownership of the 1960 novel to agent Samuel Pinkus's company, and forfeited the agent's commissions, according to a complaint filed in U.S. federal court late last week.

"Pinkus knew that Harper Lee was an elderly woman with physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to read and see," Gloria Phares, Lee's lawyer, said in the complaint. "Harper Lee had no idea she had assigned her copyright" to Pinkus's company.

mocking-bird-125.jpgThe complaint stated that Lee was re-assigned the book's copyright last year after taking legal action and that Pinkus was fired, but the agent was still receiving Mockingbird royalties as of this year.

Pinkus is the son-in-law of literary agent Eugene Winick, whose agency McIntosh & Otis had represented Lee for many years until Winick fell ill in 2002. Pinkus took over and signed over several clients of McIntosh to his own company, including Lee.

The lawsuit asks the court to demand Pinkus return to Lee any commissions he took from 2007 onwards.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, with its portrait of class and race issues in the U.S. Deep South, has long been considered one of the finest American novels, and continues to be a mainstay of literature curricula around the world. To Kill a Mockingbird has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, and remains Lee's only published novel.

Harper Lee is only the latest in a long line of authors to accuse their literary agents of screwing them royally out of royalties. Here are a few more anecdotes:

  • In the 1940s and 50s, one of New York's top literary agents was the decidedly crooked Jacques Chambord. Among the illustrious clients that Chambord ripped off were W. Somerset Maugham, Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht, Peyton Place author Grace Metalious, and Canadian short story legend Mavis Gallant. This New Yorker story from last summer outlines Chambord's dastardly literary Ponzi scheme.
  • Agent Harriet Wasserman's story reads like something torn from the pages of one of her clients' novels. Known as "the agent who disappeared," Wasserman closed up her agency in 2007 after being accused of embezzling more than $130,000 from various clients. The Daily Beast wrote up the sordid tale in 2010.
  • And then there are the agents who are outright con artists, like Dorothy Deering, who managed to scam gullible aspiring writers out of millions of dollars. FBI agent Jim Fisher wrote about the whole scam in his 2004 book Ten Percent of Nothing.