As the saying goes, success breeds imitation… but also litigation. Some of the most well-known authors in the last decade have been embroiled in lawsuits regarding their works, including Harper Lee, Kathryn Stockett and James Frey. Below we examine five of the most interesting literary lawsuits, and in a subsequent article we look at what Australian authors and publishers can take away from them.

Harper Lee v Samuel Pinkus

One of the most famous literary cases in the last few years is To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee’s complaint against her former literary agent, Samuel Pinkus, stating that he had misled her into assigning the copyright for her novel to a company that he controlled. In her complaint, Lee demanded Pinkus return whatever rights he and his company owned for To Kill a Mockingbird as well as the royalties that he received.

The suit was eventually settled, however the terms of the settlement are unclear.  

Ablene Cooper v Kathryn Stockett

Ablene Cooper, who worked as a maid for Kathryn Stockett’s brother, sued for damages of $75,000 against Stockett for misappropriation of her name and character in her novel The Help as the character Aibileen Clark. In the novel, the character Aibileen endures racial insults and discrimination. Cooper claimed that this was embarrassing and it was emotionally distressing to see similarities between her life and that of the character in the novel.

The judge dismissed the suit, stating it had been filed outside the one-year statute of limitations for misappropriation claims.  

Shera Paglinawan et al. v James Frey

In this well-known case, a class action suit was filed against Frey for misleading his purchasers and readers in his memoir A Million Little Pieces after it was exposed that the memoir was actually fiction. Ironically, Frey had attempted to have the book published as fiction unsuccessfully before marketing it as a memoir. Frey admitted to having altered certain facts of the memoir. However neither he nor his publisher Random House admitted to wrongdoing.

The suit was settled with Random House paying out a total of $2.35 million to cover refunds, lawyers’ fees and a charitable donation.

Faulkner Literary Rights v Sony

Faulkner’s estate sued Sony over Midnight in Paris, saying a quote from Faulkner’s books was used without permission in the movie.  The quote consisted of 10 words, given from a public speech Faulkner made, and was credited to Faulkner in the film.

The suit was dismissed by the judge who stated that the ten words was from a serious piece of literature but used as a speaking part in a comedic film, and this was ‘transformative’ enough to allow it to be ‘fair use’ under American law.

Reinhart and Donovan v Greg Mortenson

Greg Mortenson’s bestselling memoir Three Cups of Tea was accused of being fraudulent and deceitful by two women, who filed a suit claiming Mortenson fabricated parts of his memoir and furthermore improperly used funds from his charity to promote the book.

The suit was dismissed after the judge stated that the lawsuit was too vague. However, Mortenson agreed to pay $1 million of his own money as compensation for using charitable funds to promote his work.

Conclusion

The literary world isn’t short of lawsuits – but what can Australian authors take away from these infamous cases? Keep reading in Literary Lawsuits II: Lessons in Publishing Law.

 

Anthony Lieu

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