Arbitrator Rules in Favor of Dramatic Publishing in Suit Against Harper Lee Estate | Playbill

Industry News Arbitrator Rules in Favor of Dramatic Publishing in Suit Against Harper Lee Estate

The lawsuit concerned non-first-class theatrical rights for To Kill a Mockingbird.

Jeff Daniels in the original Broadway production of To Kill a Mockingbird.

An arbitrator with the American Arbitration Association ruled in October 2021 that the Estate of Harper Lee breached its 1969 contract with Dramatic Publishing Company in which the late author granted the company exclusive rights to license Christopher Sergel Sr.'s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird to non-first-class theatres (typically meaning theatres not on Broadway or in the West End) around the world. The ruling also said that the Estate interfered with the contracts of its licensees in both the U.S. and the U.K.

The arbitration claim was filed in March 2019 after representatives of the Harper Lee 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," according to a statement from Dramatic Publishing President Christopher Sergel III. 

Scott Rudin, the original producer of Aaron Sorkin's Broadway stage adaptation of Mockingbird, had threatened legal action against numerous theatres around the country that were staging the earlier stage adaptation of the Lee novel. Rudin—who later announced his intentions to step down from his theatrical ventures as allegations of workplace abuse and intimidation came to light—subsequently said that he would grant the stage rights of the Sorkin-penned version to certain amateur theatres around the country.

Over two years later, the arbitrator has now awarded Dramatic Publishing damages of nearly $200,000 as well as over $2.5 million in costs and lawyers' fees that were a result of the arbitration. The decision confirms Dramatic Publishing's assertion that it has "worldwide exclusive rights to all non-first-class theatre 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 theatre or stage rights."

Sergel Sr.'s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has been presented in schools, community theatres, and regional and repertory venues around the world. The Guthrie, Steppenwolf, Stratford Festival, and London's Regent's Park and Barbican are among the venues who have presented this version of Mockingbird

Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird began performances November 1, 2018, at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre. Following the Broadway shutdown, the production reopened October 5, 2021, and played its final performance at the Shubert January 16. The acclaimed production is scheduled to reopen at Broadway's Belasco Theatre beginning June 1, with Greg Kinnear returning to the role of Atticus Finch. Mockingbird will launch its national tour March 27 at Shea’s Performing Arts Center in Buffalo, New York, starring Emmy winner Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch; performances will begin in London at the Gielgud Theatre March 10 starring Rafe Spall. The arbitrator's ruling does not affect any of these first-class productions.

Dramatic Publishing will continue to offer its original and revised versions of Christopher Sergel Sr.'s adaptation of Mockingbird to non-first-class groups around the world.

Sergel III added, "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."

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