“Use our script or don’t do the play!” That’s the message to theatre companies seeking to stage Harper Lee’s prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The dispute is a full-on he-said-she-said-they-said ruckus with U.S. copyright law smack in the middle.
In 1960, Harper Lee wrote one of the world’s most beloved novels. (See Great American Read.) Within two years, Lee’s book became an award-winning film. By 1970, playwright Christopher Sergel began a stage adaptation. It finally premiered in 1991. Until recently, Sergel’s was the only play authorized by Lee.
But before Lee’s death in February 2016, theatre producer Scott Rudin persuaded Lee to allow screenwriter Aaron Sorkin to write a new version of Mockingbird. Lee agreed, and Sorkin began the script.
Copyright law protects authors and artists. It gives them rights to produce and sell their works, to make related products (like t-shirts or postcards), and to display or perform their works. These rights last for 70 years after an artist or author’s death. That means that even though Lee has died, overseers of her estate control works related to Mockingbird until 2086.
Architectural, dramatic, literary, musical, and pictorial works are all copyrighted. They are called “intellectual property.” Copyrights happen automatically and immediately when a work is created. However, to legally defend copyright, an author must register with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Copyright law prohibits public sharing of music, movies, etc. It bans publishing photos of paintings without permission or photocopying articles or stories for most uses. Think of it this way: Copying is stealing since intellectual property creators would probably earn money from every sale or exhibit.
Mockingbird Gets Tricky . . . and Trickier
After Lee’s death, her estate objected to Sorkin’s new 2016 play. Executors found it too different from the novel. Rudin and Sorkin didn’t disagree about the differences. But they wanted to proceed anyway.
Rudin/Sorkin and the Lee estate sued and countersued each other over rights to the play. Details about the court’s decision are sketchy, but Sorkin’s adaptation opened in December on Broadway. Case closed, right? Not so fast.
Ever since the Broadway premiere, Rudin’s lawyers have claimed that Rudin/Sorkin have exclusive rights for any production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Rudin argues that Lee signed all rights over to him. He points to a contract that bars productions within 25 miles of large cities during a major New York production: his. Rudin wants those productions—including ones using Sergel’s earlier play—shut down. He has even filed lawsuits.
Now dozens of small theaters are abandoning productions of To Kill a Mockingbird—even those that already paid fees to use Sergel’s 1991 adaptation.
Backlash against Rudin’s actions became intense. Rudin agreed to grant rights to some theatres. But he will grant rights only to the new Sorkin version.
Folks who prefer the older Sergel version—or who just don’t like Rudin’s tactics—are boycotting Rudin, Sorkin, their works, and all things Mockingbird. And they’re trying to make sense of a world where Lee’s classic story of innocence destroyed by evil gets hijacked by a money-grubbing Broadway machine.