An arbitrator has ordered the estate of writer Harper Lee to pay more than $2.5 million in damages and compensation to Dramatic Publishing, a theater publishing house that has licensed a stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” for decades.
The ruling found that, under pressure from Scott Rudin, the then lead producer of another adaptation of the book, which was intended for Broadway, the estate interfered with Dramatic’s contracts and sought to prevent some productions of the work.
The ruling, made in January, comes nearly three years after Dramatic invoked an arbitration clause in its contract to avoid restrictions on productions of the adaptation.
Dramatic’s adaptation, by the playwright Christopher Sergel, has long been a staple in schools and community theaters across the country. It’s the version performed every year in Lee’s hometown, Monroeville, Ala. And for decades, Dramatic was the only publishing house to authorize Lee to do a theatrical adaptation of her beloved 1960 novel about a Crusade lawyer named Atticus Finch, who is a Black man falsely accused of rape in a small Alabama town.
Then, in 2018, Rudin brought the new Aaron Sorkin adaptation to Broadway, where it became a blockbuster.
Christopher Sergel III, president of Dramatic Publishing Company and the grandson of the author of the first adaptation, claimed that the Lee estate acted in concert with Rudin to prevent some local productions of the play from going through. In stop-and-desist letters to local theaters, Rudin’s lawyers claimed those productions were no longer allowed because of the Sorkin adaptation. As a result, at least eight theaters canceled productions of Dramatic’s version of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“This has been a long and difficult battle for Dramatic Publishing, exacerbated by the ravages of Covid on the theater industry and the education system,” Sergel said in a statement on the company’s website. “Unfortunately, the Lee Estate left us no choice but to fight.”
Sergel said his company is “fully justified” by the ruling, previously reported by Broadway World.
The arbitrator ruled that the estate “had unlawfully disrupted the contracts between Dramatic and several of its licensees” and that “most, but not all, of the violations resulted from the estate’s interactions with Rudin.” It also stated that Dramatic “retains worldwide exclusive rights to all non-prime theater or stage rights to its version of “To Kill a Mockingbird”.
“For Dramatic Publishing, it was really upsetting to have been dragged through the mire of licensing the play in the market where it had licensed it for years,” said Kevin Tottis, a lawyer representing Dramatic.
The Lee Estate has filed a motion to quash the arbitration decision in federal court in Chicago, according to Matthew H. Lembke† a lawyer representing the estate. Some of the arbitrator’s ruling covered damages, but the bulk, over $2 million, is to pay Dramatic’s legal fees and other costs to continue the arbitration.
Lee, who died in 2016, sometimes expressed ambivalence about the Sergel adaptation, which was published in 1970. In a 1987 letter, Lee said Sergel’s adaptation “admirably fulfills the purpose for which it was written, for amateur, high school and small theater groups, and stock productions.” But she declined Dramatic’s request to stage a Broadway adaptation of Sergel’s play and kept those rights until 2015, when she signed a contract for a Broadway production with Rudin.
The friction between Harper Lee’s representatives and Dramatic Publishing began to escalate in 2015, after Lee authorized the Broadway production of Rudin. Rudin asked a Lee estate attorney to enforce an agreement with Dramatic publishing that Rudin said was limited to amateur productions. The estate’s attorney initially replied that Dramatic had “anything but prime production rights,” meaning they could stage their version in regional, non-commercial theaters, as well as schools and amateur theaters. He later changed his mind, claiming that Dramatic had no right to license productions featuring professional actors, a shift that the arbitrator traced to the pressure the estate was facing from Rudin. A lawyer for the estate also told Dramatic that several productions, which the estate had previously approved, violated the 1969 contract and could not be staged.
The fight burst into the public eye not long after the Broadway opening of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which starred Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch. The estate sent several letters to the publisher contesting the granting of rights to a number of theaters, noting that the 1969 contract with Harper Lee stated that while a “first-class dramatic play” based on the novel in New York or on tour Dramatic’s version cannot be staged within 25 miles of cities with populations of 150,000 or more in 1960. It also argued that Dramatic did not have the rights to license productions featuring professional actors, a claim the arbitrator made. rejected.
Rudin’s lawyers sent shutdown 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 — threatening them with legal action unless they stop their productions. Many canceled their shows and Rudin was criticized for interfering with local theaters.
In a surprising face, Rudin later apologized to theaters, saying that theater companies that canceled the play could instead stage Aaron Sorkin’s version of the script.
Before the estate and Rudin challenged the local theaters together, they themselves had had a dispute over the play. The estate sued him, claiming that Sorkin’s adaptation deviated too much from the novel, in violation of their contract; Rudin contradicted himself and offered to stage his play in court to prove his case.
The dispute was settled and the show became a commercial and critical hit. Rudin retired from active production last May after being accused of bullying and workplace misconduct; Orin Wolf became executive producer and Barry Diller lead producer to oversee production.
In January, the producers announced they would be closing the show and reopening it in a smaller theater. A North American tour and a London production are both scheduled for March.