One for the Books: 8 Literary Lawsuits

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You can't judge a book by its cover. Sometimes you need an actual court of law.

1. Harper Lee v. Samuel Pinkus

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch takes on a case he knows he'll lose and explains to Scout, "Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.” Now 87-year-old author Harper Lee's fighting her own courtroom battle and hoping justice is on her side. Lee claims she was duped into signing over her only novel's copyright to her literary agent, Samuel Pinkus, after suffering from a stroke in 2007. She regained rights last year and is now suing Pinkus for the royalties he's still collecting. Our biggest piece of legal advice: Ask yourself, WWAFD?

2. Darla Yoos, Edwin McCall, and Kerry Levine v. PublishAmerica

Struggling with ideas is only one form of writer's block. What happens when you can't get your published book read? In June 2012, three authors filed a class action lawsuit against print-on-demand book company PublishAmerica, citing deceptive trade practices. The plaintiffs claim the Maryland-based publisher is a vanity press, yet "presents itself as a traditional publisher." In addition to misrepresenting services and not promoting book sales, the lawsuit claims that published books are full of errors that PublishAmerica will only correct if the authors pay for it out of pocket. That's enough to make any book lover sic.

3. Ablene Cooper v. Kathryn Stockett

In The Help, a young journalist writes a book about the racism faced by black maids working for white families in the early 1960s. Author Kathryn Stockett's 2009 novel and 2011 film weren't as groundbreaking as her character's fictional reporting, but they were still controversial. Stockett even said some people in Jackson, Mississippi, were upset at her. One of them is Ablene Cooper, a 60-year-old maid who claims the character Aibileen Clark is an unpermitted appropriation of her name and image. She's suing Stockett for $75,000 in damages. And here's where things get downright literary: Cooper just happens to be the maid for Stockett's older brother and sister-in-law. Is life imitating art, or is it the other way around?

4. Faulkner Literary Rights LLC v. Sony

Critics and audiences alike delighted in the fictional portrayals of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and other Jazz Age writers in Woody Allen's romantic comedy fantasy Midnight in Paris. William Faulkner, on the other hand, started penning his latest novel, As I Lay Suing. Well, his estate did on his behalf. In 2012, Faulkner Literary Rights, LLC sued Sony for copyright infringement, claiming that the studio didn't get permission for the character Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) to paraphrase Faulkner. The offending lines from the movie script: "The past is not dead! Actually, it's not even past. You know who said that? Faulkner. And he was right. And I met him, too. I ran into him at a dinner party.” The actual lines by Faulkner in Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Sony defended the quote as fair use and called the lawsuit frivolous.

5. Charles Harris v. Oprah

An endorsement from the Almighty Oprah can launch a career. Charles Harris was hoping for just that when he sent a pamphlet he wrote called "How America Elects Her Presidents" to the talk show host in 2008. Alas, he never got a chance to sit on Oprah's couch. But Harris did visit his lawyer's office when Oprah repeated a question from his pamphlet in a segment about kids who know presidential trivia. Oprah's legal team proved that only one question just happened to be asked exactly as it was written in Harris's pamphlet. The $100 million lawsuit was dismissed when the judge ruled that presidential trivia is not copyrightable. Where would mental_floss be if it was?

6. Michelle Reinhart and Jean Price v. Greg Mortenson

Ever want your money back when a book doesn't live up to the hype? If author fraud and racketeering are involved, you might have a case. Two Democratic lawmakers from Montana filed a class action lawsuit against Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, after reports that charitable works in the best-selling non-fiction book were fabricated. The book has sold over four million copies since 2006, with proceeds going to Mortenson's Central Asia Institute. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, but that's not always how the story goes. In 2007, Random House settled a class action lawsuit over James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, paying nearly $30,000 in reader refunds to people who bought the book before the author admitted it was fictionalized.

7. J.D. Salinger v. John David California

We all know that J.D. Salinger grew up to be a crotchety and litigious recluse. But how would his most famous character, Holden Caulfield, have turned out? In 2009, a Swedish author named Fredrik Colting (nom de plume: John David California), imagined Caulfield escaping from a New York City retirement home in a sequel called 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye. And faster than you can say "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," Salinger sued him. The lawsuit claimed that the sequel was neither a parody nor did it comment on the original work. There was even a question of whether Holden Caulfield might be a copyrightable character. The lawsuit was eventually settled in 2011 when Colting agreed not to sell the book in the U.S. or Canada until The Catcher in the Rye enters the public domain. Colting also had to change the title and any plans to dedicate the book to J.D. Salinger.

8. Patrick White v. Jay-Z

Jay-Z's got 99 problems, but this lawsuit ain't one. In June 2012, a man named Patrick White claimed that writing saved on his stolen laptop was later plagiarized in the 2010 book Decoded, a collection of Jay-Z lyrics and some of the stories behind them. The problem: Everyone knows Jay-Z wrote these rhymes. White still sued for copyright infringement and invasion of private property, as well as some cold cash money from book sales. Good luck with that, son.

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May 7, 2013 - 12:30pm
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