Harper Lee Estate told to pay $2.5 million in dispute over 'Mockingbird' plays

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Harper Lee Estate told to pay $2.5 million in dispute over 'Mockingbird' plays
Jeff Daniels, left, and Gbenga Akinnagbe, right, in “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the Shubert Theater in New York, Dec. 6, 2018. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Alexandra Alter

NEW YORK, NY.- An arbitrator has ordered the estate of writer Harper Lee to pay more than $2.5 million in damages and fees to Dramatic Publishing, a theatrical publishing company that has licensed a stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” for decades.

The ruling found that under pressure from Scott Rudin, then lead producer of a different adaptation of the book, which was intended for Broadway, the estate interfered with Dramatic’s contracts, and tried to prevent some productions of the work.

The ruling, made in January, comes nearly three years after Dramatic invoked an arbitration clause in its contract to prevent limits on productions of its adaptation.

Dramatic’s adaptation, by playwright Christopher Sergel, has long been a staple at schools and community theaters around the country. It’s the version that has been staged every year in Lee’s hometown, Monroeville, Alabama. And for decades, Dramatic was the only publisher Lee had authorized to license a theatrical adaptation of her beloved 1960 novel about a crusading lawyer named Atticus Finch who represents a Black man who is unjustly accused of rape in a small town in Alabama.

Then, in 2018, Rudin brought the new Aaron Sorkin adaptation to Broadway, where it became a box office hit.

Christopher Sergel III, president of Dramatic Publishing Co. and the grandson of the author of the first adaptation, claimed that the Lee estate acted in concert with Rudin to prevent some local productions of the play from going forward. In cease-and-desist letters to local theaters, Rudin’s lawyers claimed that those productions were no longer permissible because of the Sorkin adaptation. As a result, at least eight theaters canceled productions of Dramatic’s version of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“This has been a long and difficult struggle for Dramatic Publishing, exacerbated by the ravages of COVID on the theater industry and educational system,” Sergel said in a statement posted on the company’s website. “Unfortunately, the Lee Estate left us no choice but to fight.”

Sergel said his company has been “fully vindicated” by the ruling, which was earlier reported by Broadway World.

The arbitrator ruled that the estate had “tortiously interfered with contracts between Dramatic and several of its licensees” and that “most, but not all, violations resulted from the estate’s interactions with Rudin.” It also stated that Dramatic retains “worldwide exclusive rights to all non-first-class theater or stage rights for its version of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“For Dramatic Publishing to have been dragged through the mud for licensing the play in the very market it had licensed it in for years was really very troubling,” said Kevin Tottis, a lawyer representing Dramatic.

The Lee Estate has filed a motion to overturn the arbitration award in federal court in Chicago, according to Matthew H. Lembke, a lawyer representing the estate. Some portion of the arbitrator’s ruling covered damages, but the bulk, more than $2 million, is to reimburse for Dramatic’s legal fees and other costs to pursue the arbitration.

Lee, who died in 2016, sometimes expressed ambivalence about the Sergel adaptation, which was published in 1970. In a 1987 letter, Lee said Sergel’s adaptation “admirably fulfills the purpose for which it was written, for amateur, high school and little theater groups, and stock productions.” But she declined Dramatic’s request to stage a Broadway adaptation of Sergel’s play, and held onto those rights until 2015, when she entered a contract for a Broadway production with Rudin.

The friction between Harper Lee’s representatives and Dramatic Publishing began to escalate in 2015, after Lee authorized Rudin’s Broadway production. Rudin asked a lawyer for the Lee estate to enforce an agreement with Dramatic publishing that Rudin argued limited them to amateur productions. The estate’s lawyer initially replied that Dramatic held “everything but first-class production rights,” meaning that they could stage their version in regional, noncommercial theaters as well as in schools and amateur theaters. He later reversed his position and maintained that Dramatic had no right to license productions with any professional actors, a shift that the arbitrator traced to the pressure the estate faced from Rudin. A lawyer for the estate also told Dramatic that several productions, which the estate had previously approved, violated the 1969 contract and could not be staged.

The fight burst into public view not long after the Broadway opening of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which starred Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch. The estate sent several letters to the publisher disputing its granting of rights to a number of theaters and noted that the 1969 contract with Harper Lee stated that while a “first-class dramatic play” based on the novel is playing in New York or on tour, Dramatic’s version cannot be staged within 25 miles of cities with a population of 150,000 or more in 1960. It also argued that Dramatic did not have the rights to license any productions with professional actors, a claim that the arbitrator dismissed.

Lawyers for Rudin sent cease and desist letters to small theaters around the country — including the Kavinoky Theater in Buffalo, New York, the Oklahoma Children’s Theater and the Mugford Street Players in Marblehead, Massachusetts — threatening them with legal action unless they halted their productions. Many canceled their shows, and Rudin faced criticism for interfering with local theaters.

In a surprising about-face, Rudin later apologized to the theaters, and said that theater companies that had canceled the play could instead stage Aaron Sorkin’s version of the script.

Before the estate and Rudin challenged the local theaters together, they had gone through a dispute of their own over the play. The estate sued him, asserting Sorkin’s adaptation deviated too much from the novel, in violation of their contract; Rudin countersued and offered to stage his play in front of the judge to prove his case.

The dispute was settled, and the show went on to become a commercial and critical hit. Rudin stepped back from active producing last May after he was accused of bullying and workplace misconduct; Orin Wolf became executive producer and Barry Diller lead producer to oversee the production.

In January, its producers announced that they would shut down the show and reopen in a smaller theater. A North American tour and a London production are both scheduled to begin in March.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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