Dramatic Publishing Wins Its Arbitration Against the Harper Lee Estate Over To Kill a Mockingbird
February 3, 2022
In 1969, Harper Lee gave her express approval to Christopher Sergel Sr.'s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird and granted Dramatic Publishing Company the exclusive rights to license non-first-class theatres throughout the world including resident, regional and repertory houses. For nearly 50 years, Dramatic Publishing's original and revised versions of the adaptation have delighted audiences in productions in schools, community theatres and some of the most important regional and repertory theatres around the world including the Guthrie Theater, Steppenwolf Theater, Stratford Festival, London's Regent's Park and Barbican Centre. Sadly, three years ago, in direct violation of the 1969 Agreement with Ms. Lee, representatives of her Estate acted in concert with producers of a Broadway production who baselessly threatened Dramatic Publishing's licensees and made false and misleading statements about Dramatic Publishing's rights under the 1969 Agreement. As previously announced, in March 2019, we filed an arbitration claim against the Lee Estate for allowing the Broadway producers to trample on Dramatic Publishing's rights and for tortiously interfering with the rights of Dramatic Publishing's licensees. At the time, we said we would have no further comment until the process played out.
The process has now played out. And Dramatic Publishing has been fully vindicated.
In October 2021, following a five-week hearing earlier in the year, an arbitrator with the American Arbitration Association issued an 88-page ruling (recently unsealed by the federal court in Chicago) finding not only that the Estate of Harper Lee breached its contract with Dramatic Publishing but that it tortiously interfered with the contracts of its licensees in both the United States and the United Kingdom. In addition to awarding damages of just under $200,000.00, the arbitrator also clearly and unequivocally declared what Dramatic Publishing had been saying all along: that it "...has worldwide exclusive rights to all non-first-class theater or stage rights in To Kill a Mockingbird ... and has all rights under the Agreement that provide for Dramatic to enjoy the full exercise of all non-first-class theater or stage rights." He further found that it was "misleading" for the "Estate and its agents" to "state or imply" that Ms. Lee had reserved "all professional acting rights" in the 1969 Agreement. Last week, he also ordered the Estate and the holding company, Harper Lee LLC, to pay Dramatic Publishing over $2.5 million in costs and attorneys' fees stemming from the arbitration.
Dramatic Publishing has always met its obligations to our writers and their stakeholders faithfully, ethically, legally and, at all times, enthusiastically. We are very proud to offer thousands of titles, of all types, for all groups. To Kill a Mockingbird is clearly an important piece of American literature, and we will continue to offer both versions of our adaptation to non-first-class groups around the world. While a first-class tour may restrict our licensing around certain U.S. markets (cities with a 1960 Census population of 150,000 or more and the surrounding 25 miles), we will continue licensing stock and amateur productions in all unaffected markets. There are no such restrictions internationally.
This has been a long and difficult struggle for Dramatic Publishing, exacerbated by the ravages of Covid on the theatre industry and educational system. Unfortunately, the Lee Estate left us no choice but to fight. Bullying must be confronted where it stands, especially when one is right. We continue to stand behind every license we issue, as we always have--since 1885.
Read both the Final and Interim Opinions here.
Christopher Sergel III