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Why Small-Town Theater Productions of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Are Being Threatened With Legal Action

A copyright lawyer explains that even high school student productions could be affected

Scott Rudin arrives at the Golden Globe Awards, in Beverly Hills, CalifGolden Globe Awards - Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA

Scott Rudin arrives at the Golden Globe Awards, in Beverly Hills, Calif Golden Globe Awards - Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA

Matt Sayles/AP/REX/Shutterstock

UPDATE: In an emailed statement, Scott Rudin reiterated to Rolling Stone that he was working to “enforce the agreement” made with the estate of the late author, Harper Lee. He also added that he has been “hard at work” creating a solution for this problem. “In an effort to ameliorate the hurt caused here, we are offering each of these companies the right to perform our version of To Kill a Mockingbird, Aaron Sorkin’s play currently running on Broadway,” he wrote. “For these theaters, this is the version that can be offered to them, in concert with our agreement with Harper Lee. We hope they will choose to avail themselves of the opportunity.”

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To Kill a Mockingbird is an American literature classic that’s taught in English classes across the country and staged by community and high school theater groups around the world — and now, those productions are being canceled.

That’s the result of legal threats made by Broadway and film producer Scott Rudin, who is currently helming a Broadway adaptation written by Aaron Sorkin and starring Jeff Daniels.

According to the Associated Press, Rudin’s legal team has sent letters to community theater groups across the country threatening them to shut down their productions. Most of these productions are not of Sorkin’s play, but are of another 1969 adaptation of Lee’s work, written by playwright Christopher Sergel.

Rudin is arguing that because author Harper Lee signed over the exclusive worldwide rights of the title to him, other theatrical productions of the work — even those in small cities like Dayton, Ohio and Buffalo, New York — constitute infringement.

“We hate to ask anybody to cancel any production of a play anywhere, but the productions in question as licensed by DPC infringe on rights licensed to us by Harper Lee directly,” he said in a statement.

When reached for comment, Christopher Sergel III, the president of DPC and grandson of the playwright of the original adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, said only, “My grandfather’s adaptation represented the original work faithfully for 50 years. Beyond that, I have no comment.”

The move has prompted outrage from free speech advocates and theater enthusiasts across the country, who interpret the move as a bullying tactic intended to squash artistic expression. The outrage over Rudin’s threats has spawned the hashtag #BoycottRudinPlays, including such popular productions as The Book of Mormon and King Lear. 

Mockingbird actors in the Broadway production — such as Jeff Daniels, who plays Atticus Finch in Rudin’s production — are also being called out on social media.

According to copyright lawyer Joshua Graubart, who is not involved with the case, this move is not unprecedented and is likely intended to protect Rudin’s financial interest in a prospective future touring production of Mockingbird. Per Lee’s contract with the Dramatic Publishing Company (DPC), which owns the rights to the 1969 version of the play, theaters within 25 miles of a big city (defined as a city with a population of 100,000 people or more) cannot put on a production of Mockingbird while a “first-class dramatic” version of the play (i.e., a production on Broadway) is being staged.

“It sounds like a number of letters went out to local theaters on the basis of, ‘Look, your production is too close to a big city, and the licensing agent doesn’t have the authority to let you put it on here,'” Graubart tells Rolling Stone. Rudin has a financial stake in even small community theater productions in cities like Salt Lake City, where a production of the play was recently canceled, because “one could argue that if the show is successful on Broadway, it will have a touring production, so it will go to places like Salt Lake City.”

Currently, there are 14 productions of Sergel’s adaptation being staged in the United States in cities such as Gadsden, Alabama and Elwood, Indiana, according to a production map on the Dramatic Publishing Company (DPC) website. Sergel’s grandson said that requests to license To Kill a Mockingbird are among the most popular, and that he had heard from “a handful” of productions that they were shutting down in response to legal threats. “Until someone officially lets DPC know they would like to terminate their license, I assume they intend to fulfill it,” he said.

Per Graubart, it’s possible that even amateur high school or college theater productions would be affected; indeed, one of the productions listed on DPC’s website is at Ohio Wesleyan University. Though Graubart has not seen the contracts, generally speaking, “I’ve never seen a specific distinction made saying, ‘It’s OK for high school and college productions, but not OK for grown-up and amateur stuff,” he says. When asked whether the language of the original agreement with Lee included student theater productions, Sergel said, “I’d rather not get into the original language of the agreement with Harper Lee.” (Rudin’s team did not respond to inquiries at press time.)

While Sergel said that “Dramatic Publishing will continue to license stock and amateur productions per its original agreement with Harper Lee,” for the time being most community theaters are responding to the legal threats by quietly shutting down productions and putting on another play; the New York Times, for instance, reports that a Buffalo production is instead staging George Orwell’s 1984.

Meanwhile, those involved with the production are reportedly heartbroken. “I feel terrible for our artists, onstage and backstage, who poured their hearts into making something beautiful and meaningful, only to have it ended so suddenly,” Matt Lindsay, chair of the Dayton Playhouse’s board of directors, told the Associated Press after its production of Mockingbird was shut down.

But according to Graubart, they may not have much other choice. “The money [of litigating] isn’t worth it,” he says. “The amount of money at stake versus the amount of money people want to spend is very small…most amateurs are non-profit operations. It’s very, ‘We’re putting on a show!’ So when someone says, ‘Would you like to spend thousands of dollars in litigation?,’ [then the response is usually] ‘No, we’ll simply do something else.'”

Update: This story has been updated to include comment from DPC President Christopher Sergel III. 

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to the copyright lawyer Joshua Graubard. His name is spelled Joshua Graubart. 

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