Reclusive 'Mockingbird' author Harper Lee sues literary agents

Harper Lee MedalHarper Lee, the reclusive 87-year-old author of To Kill a Mockingbird, has sued a literary agent, claiming he took advantage of her age and infirmity to possess himself of the copyright of the famous novel and thus deprive the author of royalties.

Lee lives quietly in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama, and has always avoided the media and requests for public appearances. She has now sued Samuel Pinkus, the agent, and others, seeking to ensure her ownership of the 1960 novel and to compel forfeiture of the agent's commissions, according to a complaint filed on Saturday in federal court in New York.

Lee, who has failing eyesight and hearing, was residing in an assisted-living facility in 2007 after suffering a stroke when she signed a document assigning her copyright to Pinkus's company, according to the complaint.

While the copyright was re-assigned to Lee last year after legal action and Pinkus was discharged as Lee's agent, he was still receiving royalties from the novel as of this year, according to the complaint.

''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.

Among the defendants is Leigh Ann Winick of New York, the wife of Pinkus. She is listed in the complaint as the president of Keystone Literary LLC, another defendant.

Also named as a defendant is Gerald Posner, a New York lawyer and investigative journalist who incorporated one of Pinkus's businesses.

Lee's literary agent for many years was McIntosh & Otis. When its principal, Eugene Winick, became ill in 2002, his son-in-law, Pinkus, took over and diverted several McIntosh clients to a company he controlled. McIntosh later won a judgment against Pinkus's company in an arbitration over commissions he diverted from the firm, according to the complaint.

The case claims that Pinkus "engaged in a scheme to dupe" Lee into assigning the copyright without any payment.

Lee's lawsuit says Pinkus engineered the transfer of Lee's rights to secure himself "irrevocable" interest in the income derived from To Kill a Mockingbird. It adds that he also avoided paying legal obligations that he owed to his father-in-law's company for royalties that Pinkus had allegedly misappropriated.

Lee has been suffering declining health for some years and has trouble with her eyesight and hearing. She was living in the assisted-living facility after suffering a stroke. She argues that she has no memory of agreeing to relinquish her rights to the book and signing an agreement that memorialises the purported transfer of income.

Despite the vast acclaim it has received and its continued popularity, To Kill a Mockingbird, is Lee's only novel; and perhaps her only published work apart from an obscure essay about her experience as a judge for a children's literary prize.

A story of racial injustice in the American South, To Kill a Mockingbird has sold more than 30 million copies so far and continues to be vastly popular.

In 1962 it was made into a film starring Gregory Peck, who won an Oscar for playing the heroic lawyer Atticus Finch, who tries to prevent an innocent black man from being convicted of rape.