'To Kill a Mockingbird''s Copyright Fight is An Important Lesson For All Writers

Recent Vanity Fair coverage of Harper Lee’s fight to reclaim her copyright for To Kill A Mockingbird focuses on Samuel Pinkus, the sleazy literary agent who took advantage of the 87-year-old Lee, tricking her into assigning him the copyright, worth millions a year. Pinkus makes a compelling villain, but the story can also be read as a collision between two understandings of the principles and practices of an agent.

In the golden age of publishing, the ideal agent invested personally in what he represented: a book’s first reader and advocate, an author’s therapist, and the lowballing publisher’s worst nightmare. In this model was Eugene Winick, Harper Lee’s agent and lawyer for most of her career and the father-in-law of Sam Pinkus.

Winick and Pinkus’ eventual falling out and estrangement was a sign of their increasingly divergent notions of what a literary agent should be. Lee’s understanding aligned with the old-fashioned school: the relationship of author and agent required intimacy and trust. After receiving a Freedom Medal for To Kill A Mockingbird, she immediately gave it to Sam Pinkus as a gesture of respect for his relatives who had died in the Holocaust.

Pinkus’ schemes to siphon royalties lacked cunning or originality — pushing payments through sham agencies run out of his house. Instead of financial acumen, he relied on psychological sleight-of-hand, leveraging the trust authors placed in him based on his relationship with legitimate agencies such as Winick’s McIntosh & Otis. When a few venerable publishers anchored the system, literary agents could be fairly evaluated based on their connections to those houses.

Now, industry knowledge is not enough. The new breed of agent must acquire tangible knowledge and skills: copyright and intellectual property laws, PR savvy, analytic data assessment. Increasingly, an agent works to refine an author’s persona without knowing them as a person, drawn to the technical issues surrounding the work rather than compelled by the book itself. Rather than developing skills based on the needs of an author, an agent learns skills to apply to whatever project he picks up.

The second disruption to traditional publishing emerges on the level of plot. The pivot of any publishing saga is the copyright, the author’s ownership of their work. The concept of “copyright” is simultaneously dilating and dissipating. In the age of the internet, the rights to a text open up more possible avenues of profit, yet swarms of anti-copyright activists and militant advocates for “digital freedom” back up the widespread assumption that everything should be available on the net.

The primary responsibility of an agent now is to re-stabilize copyright, trying to untangle and maximize the profit of copyright beyond the printed text itself . In the past, it’s been said that divorcing an agent is like divorcing a spouse. Now, it’s all business. Authors need to choose their agents with as calculating an eye as agents use when taking on authors. Furthermore, authors should not enter the publishing world without some common-sense understanding of issues surrounding “copyright” — otherwise, unscrupulous agents or publishers might, for example, allow them royalties from print books while pocketing the much larger alternative profits.

Discussing this shameful incident, there’s the temptation to seize on the irony of Lee losing the rights to a book dedicated to principles of justice to Pinkus’ sleazy legal contrivances. Yet noting this irony is both glib and unproductive. Lee’s book was a sharp exposure of the deeply-held ideological prejudices of her world. The legal injustice surrounding her book’s copyright stems from a more banal, enduring wrongdoing: simple money-grubbing. 

In the Vanity Fair piece, Mark Seal records a conversation in which a friend teasingly calls Pinkus a “carpetbagger.” Nowadays, a catch-all pejorative for the greedy, the term originally described the Northerners who flowed into the Reconstruction-era South in order to take advantage of its instability. The rise of the digital age and the accompanying panic about the demise of print publications exploded the basic infrastructure of publishing. The dissolution of these points of stability — the traditional publishing house, the intimacy of the agent relationship, the integrity of copyright — strands authors, agents, and publishers alike. The publishing world has been shaken into the kind of uncertain territory that draws opportunists. Writers must know what’s really under their feet, a vision that depends on erasing images of nostalgia for publishing as it used to be.