Courtroom Drama: New Legal Battle Over ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

In 2019, the producers of a Broadway adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” provoked outrage by seeking to prevent a group of small theaters around the country from staging an earlier dramatization of the novel.

Now the tables have turned: The publisher of the earlier adaptation is seeking to block the Broadway version from being staged at a wide variety of venues.

At stake is not only who will profit, long-term, from stage versions of the classic story, but also which dramatic interpretation will reach many audiences across the country. In one corner is the new Broadway script, which was written by Aaron Sorkin, with contemporary pacing, amplified roles for Black characters, and a complicating take on the small-town lawyer Atticus Finch; in the other corner is the traditional script, by Christopher Sergel, which has been staged for decades in schools and community theaters.

This week, the producers of the Sorkin script filed a lawsuit against the rightsholders of the Sergel script, asking a judge to allow a large swath of theaters and other venues across the country to present productions of either version. The producers are seeking to overcome an arbitration ruling finding that the Sergel script has exclusive rights to most markets beyond Broadway, the West End, and the current national tour.

The lawsuit is the latest twist in a series of disputes over the estate of Harper Lee, who published “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1960, and who died in 2016.

Here’s the newest development: On Wednesday, an entity called Atticus Limited Liability Company, which was the production company responsible for the new Sorkin version on Broadway, filed a lawsuit in federal court against Dramatic Publishing Company, which owns the copyright to the Sergel play.

Among the members of the Atticus company is Scott Rudin, the Broadway and Hollywood powerhouse who was the lead producer of the Broadway “Mockingbird,” but who stepped back from active producing over allegations that he had bullied employees and collaborators. Sorkin, who has distanced himself from Rudin, declined to sign on as a plaintiff in the litigation, and, in fact, he’s named as an “involuntary party/nominal defendant.”

Atticus said in its complaint that it was challenging what it described as Dramatic Publishing Company’s “erroneous claim that the acclaimed Aaron Sorkin adaptation cannot be staged by any regional, local or community theaters, colleges, high schools, churches, clubs or any other amateur groups anywhere in the United States, including performances via a planned non-Equity tour that will bring the Sorkin Play to theaters across the country.”

The dispute has a tortured timeline. In 1969 Lee gave Sergel rights to stock and amateur productions (but not Broadway productions) of “Mockingbird.” In 2011, according to the lawsuit, she notified Dramatic Publishing Company of her intent to terminate the exclusive rights, and in 2015 she agreed to let Rudin develop a new Broadway-bound adaptation; Rudin later hired Sorkin to write the play.

Then a pair of legal disputes arose — the Lee estate and the Rudin producing team sued one another over the new script’s fidelity to the novel, while the Sorkin and Sergel rightsholders began to spar over which show could be staged where. The first of those disputes was settled; the second went to a lengthy arbitration, where Dramatic Publishing prevailed; the Lee estate challenged that ruling in court, but has thus far been rebuffed.

A lawyer for Dramatic Publishing expressed confidence that the company and its Sergel script retain exclusive rights to “Mockingbird” in most settings beyond Broadway and the national tour. “For any number of reasons, the Rudin lawsuit is meritless,” said the lawyer, Kevin Tottis.

As the legal tussling continues, the Sorkin version is now onstage in London and on tour (currently in San Diego) while the Sergel version is being staged on various smaller stages.

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