Book Thief? – Infringement in the World of Literature

By Beth Brown, Marketing Executive

“Words are life” – The Book Thief. Never is this more true than when said about an author, whose income and livelihood come from people paying to read (or hear, since the invention of audiobooks) the words that they have crafted into a story. Below are some of the works of literature which have found themselves embroiled in IP lawsuits.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is undeniably a classic which has stood the test of time (first published in 1960) and will hopefully continue to be read for many years to come. In 2013 Harper Lee, the author, filed a lawsuit against her former agent for the rights of her book after claiming that she had been duped into assigning the book’s copyright to his company. She accused the former agent of improperly collecting royalties from “To Kill a Mockingbird” for a considerable period of time. The lawsuit was settled with the details remaining confidential.

J.K Rowling has been entangled in plenty of IP cases, both as the claimant and the defendant. In 1999 Rowling was sued for infringement by an American writer who claimed that she has invented the word “muggle” (for anyone who has been living under a rock for the last decade, a “muggle” is a word used in Harry Potter to describe someone without magical powers). The court was not persuaded by the arguments that the term had been stolen and also found that much of the evidence aimed at the showing that there had been infringement had been fabricated.

In 2008 Rowling filed a copyright infringement suit herself to stop the publication of a Harry Potter encyclopedia. The judge ruled in Rowling’s favour stating that the proposed lexicon “appropriates too much of Rowling’s creative work for its purposes as a reference guide.” The publication of the book in question was permanently blocked and Rowling was awarded $6,750 in statutory damages.

“The Help” is a book written in the voice of a black maid who raises the children of white people. It explores the lives of people in Mississippi in the 1960s. The book was an instant hit and has now been turned into a film starring Viola Davis and Emma Stone. The book was written by Kathryn Stockett who, in 2001, came under scrutiny after Abelene Cooper, the nanny for Stocktt’s brother, accused her of stealing her identity to create the main character in the book. Cooper filed a $75,000 lawsuit against the author. The alleged similarities included the character’s name, both the character and Cooper have a gold tooth and, like the character in the book, Cooper lost her son just before she began looking after the Stocketts’ first child. Whether Cooper’s identity was stolen remains undecided as the court case was dismissed on the grounds of the statute of limitations, which in this case allowed a one year time period for claims to be brought. Cooper brought her claim more than two years after the book was published and as such any evidence for or against the claim was moot and could not be discussed.