Wasden and Strasavich Prevail in Case Related to Film Copyrights of "To Kill a Mockingbird"

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Bill Wasden and Mike Strasavich recently prevailed in a federal court case in Mobile that was closely watched nationally as they received a judgment affirming an arbitral award involving the film copyrights to the successors of "To Kill a Mockingbird" filmmakers in a long-running dispute with author Harper Lee's estate over certain print and film rights from the late Ms. Lee's famous work.

On August 19, 2022, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama issued an order entering judgment upholding an arbitration award in proceedings originally filed against heirs of the film producers by the late novelist's estate and Harper Lee LLC over rights to "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the sequel "Go Set A Watchman." Under the order and judgment, successors to the 1962 movie adaptation have film copyrights to the novel and its sequel, while the author's representatives retain the rights to the printed version of the book, including audiobooks, e-books and play adaptations.

Burr & Forman, Bill Wasden and Mike Strasavich served as local counsel in Mobile and, along with Los Angeles co-counsel Mark S. Lee of Rimon, P.C. represented the heirs of the film's director Robert Mulligan, producer Alan J. Pakula and Oscar-winning actor Gregory Peck, and their successor business entities.

Harper Lee had contracted with Mulligan and Pakula in 1961, a year after publishing her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, under which the filmmakers were granted certain film production rights to "To Kill A Mockingbird." Under the judgment, the heirs' film copyrights include rights to the novel's narrative, dialogue and characters as well as the right to age the characters in derivative work.

The author sought to terminate the agreement in 2008 and instead institute an agreement granting only certain rights. She again sought to terminate the 1961 agreement in 2015 after publishing the sequel "Go Set a Watchman," which included some of the same characters and themes in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

After Lee passed away in 2016, her estate took over as her representative in the arbitration.

The case is Atticus Corporation et al. v. Tonja B. Carter, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Nelle Harper Lee et al., case number 1:22-cv-00059, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama.

For the full article as reported in Law360: Judge Backs 'Mockingbird' Filmmaker Heirs' Arbitral Award, please click here.

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