An arbitrator has ordered the estate of author Harper Lee to pay more than $2.5 million in damages and costs to the theatrical publishing company that has licensed the stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” for decades .
The ruling found that, under pressure from Scott Rudin, when the lead producer of the book’s other adaptation was producing for Broadway, the estate interfered with the play’s contract and sought to block some of the production’s make.
The ruling came in January, nearly three years after Dramatic invoked an arbitration clause in its contract to prevent restrictions on the production of its adaptations.
Playwright Christopher Sergel’s adaptation has long been a staple of school and community theaters across the country. This is the version that plays out every year in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. For decades, Dramatic was the only publisher Lee had licensed for the drama adaptation of her beloved 1960 novel about a man named Atticus Finch. Finch’s Crusader Attorney. Black man unjustly accused of rape in a small Alabama town.
Then, in 2018, Rudin brought the new adaptation of Aaron Sorkin to Broadway, where it became a box office hit.
Christopher Selger III, president of Drama Publishing and grandson of the author of the first adaptation, claims that Lee’s estate, working with Rudin, prevented some local productions of the show. In a cease-and-desist letter to local theaters, Rudin’s lawyers claimed the productions were no longer allowed due to Sorkin’s adaptation. As a result, at least eight theaters canceled production of the Dramatic version of To Kill a Mockingbird.
“It has been a long and difficult battle for theatrical publishing companies, exacerbated by Covid’s disruption to the theatrical industry and education system,” Sergel said in a statement posted on the company’s website. “Unfortunately, Li’s Manor leaves us with no choice but to fight.”
Sergel said his company had been “totally proven” by the ruling reported earlier by Broadway World.
The arbitrators ruled that the estate “interfered in tortious manner in 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 “exclusive worldwide rights to all non-first-class theater or stage rights to its version of To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Kevin Tottis said: “It’s really very disturbing for Dramatic Publishing to get bogged down in licensing the show in a market it has licensed for years,” Lawyers representing dramas.
According to Matthew H. Lembke, Lee Estate has filed a motion to overturn the arbitral award in federal court in Chicago, Lawyers representing estates. Part of the arbitrator’s award covered damages, but the bulk of the more than $2 million was to reimburse Dramatic for legal fees and other costs of conducting the arbitration.
Lee, who died in 2016, sometimes expressed ambivalence about Selger’s adaptation, published in 1970. In a 1987 letter, Lee said Sergel’s adaptation “admirably fulfilled its purpose of writing for amateur, high school, and small theater groups, as well as stock production.” But she rejected Dramatic’s request to transfer Sergel’s The play was adapted to Broadway requirements and retained those rights until 2015 when she signed Rudin to a contract for a Broadway production.
Friction between Harper Lee’s reps and the theatrical publishing company began to escalate in 2015 after Lee licensed Rudin’s Broadway production. Rudin asked Li Manor’s lawyers to enforce the agreement with the theatrical publishing company, which Rudin believed was limited to amateur productions. The estate’s attorneys initially responded that Dramatic had “everything but first-class production rights,” meaning they could stage their versions in regional, non-commercial theaters, as well as school and amateur theaters. He later changed his stance, insisting that Dramatic had no right to license the production to any professional actor, a shift the arbitrator traced to pressure on the estate from Rudin. A lawyer for the estate also told Dramatic that several productions previously approved by the estate violated the 1969 contract and could not be staged.
The fight came into the public eye shortly after the Broadway opening of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” starring Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch. The estate sent several letters to the publisher contesting the rights it had granted to multiple theaters, noting that the 1969 contract with Harper Lee stipulated that while “first-rate plays” based on novels were being staged or touring in New York, Dramatic The version cannot be staged within 25 miles of a city with a population of more than 150,000 in 1960. It also argued that Dramatic had no right to license the work of any professional actor, a claim the arbitrator dismissed.
Rudin’s attorneys sent cease and desist letters to small theaters across the country, including the Kavinoky Theater in Buffalo, the Oklahoma Children’s Theater and the Mugford Street Players in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Threatened them to take legal action unless they stopped making. Many canceled their shows, and Rudin was criticized for interfering with local theaters.
Rudin later unexpectedly apologized to the theater and said the theater company that canceled the show could instead stage Aaron Sorkin’s version of the script.
Before Manor and Rudin challenged the local theatre together, they had already been through a debate about the show. The estate sued him, claiming that Sorkin’s adaptation strayed too far from the novel and violated their contract; Rudin countersued and offered to stage his play before a judge to prove his case.
The controversy was resolved, and the show went on to become a commercial and significant hit.Rudin quit active production last May after being accused of bullying and workplace misconduct; Olympian Wolves Becomes executive producer, with Barry Diller overseeing production as lead producer.
In January, its producers announced they would close the show and reopen it in a smaller theater. Both the North American tour and the London production are scheduled to begin in March.