A New Legal Battle Over Aaron Sorkin's To Kill a Mockingbird is Underway | Playbill

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Industry News A New Legal Battle Over Aaron Sorkin's To Kill a Mockingbird is Underway

Lawyer Kevin Tottis for Dramatic Publishing, which licenses an earlier adaptation of the Harper Lee novel, has released a statement on the newest filing.

Jim Norton in To Kill A Mockingbird Marc Brenner

The courtroom drama around Aaron Sorkin's stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird continues. According to The New York Times, the latest development is a lawsuit filed by Atticus Limited Liability Company (the Scott Rudin-led production company that handled the Broadway run) against Dramatic Publishing Company, which licenses an earlier stage adaptation of the Harper Lee novel. 

The suit, filed November 30, seeks legal permission for the Aaron Sorkin-penned adaptation, which debuted on Broadway in 2018, to be available to stock and amateur theatres around the United States. Dramatic Publishing licenses the adaptation penned by Christopher Sergel, Sr., which has been frequently produced at regional, amateur, and school theatres since its debut in 1990—and they continue to affirm their exclusive rights to a stage dramatization of Lee's novel in the non-first-class (which essentially means non-Broadway) marketplace.

Kevin Tottis, a lawyer representing Dramatic Publishing, said in a statement, "Mr. Rudin doesn’t have a claim. In his deal with Ms. Lee, Mr. Rudin agreed that his rights are subject to Ms. Lee’s earlier agreement with Dramatic Publishing. That agreement said an arbitrator had the final word on what the agreement meant and, after a five-week hearing, the arbitrator’s final word was that Dramatic Publishing’s non-first-class theatre rights are exclusive. Mr. Rudin’s complaint also ignores the ruling of a federal judge in Illinois who already reviewed the arbitrator’s award at the Lee Estate’s request and agreed with the arbitrator finding, '[B]y the terms of [Rudin’s] Agreement, [Rudin] does not own the non-first-class rights—as they never returned to the Estate following its termination of Dramatic's license.' That’s only one of the many problems with Mr. Rudin’s complaint."

The issue originates in a 2019 arbitration claim in which Rudin and his co-producers of the Sorkin Broadway adaptation sought to prevent a group of small theatres around the United States from staging Sergel, Sr.'s version. The American Arbitration Association's decision ruled in Dramatic Publishing's favor, awarding damages and confirming its stance 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." 

Dramatic Publishing Company's rights trace back to a 1969 contract with the Estate of Harper Lee, which granted the company exclusive rights to license Sergel, Sr.'s adaptation to stock and amateur theatres. However, in 2011, according to the lawsuit, Lee notified Dramatic Publishing Company of her intent to terminate the exclusive rights and agreed in 2015 to let Scott Rudin develop a new Broadway-bound adaptation. Rudin later hired Sorkin and was the work's original producer before announcing he would step back from theatre following allegations about workplace abuse.

Sorkin is not named as a plaintiff in the new legal action, and is instead named as an “involuntary party/nominal defendant.”

Ramifications of which version can be staged include not only who will benefit financially, but which interpretation will be available to theatregoers. As both parties continue to present their arguments, the Sorkin version currently plays in London and is touring the United States, while smaller theatres continue using Sergel, Sr.'s adaptation.

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.


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