By Verna Gates
BIRMINGHAM, Ala (Reuters) - An Alabama museum in the town that inspired the setting for the novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" is fighting back against a lawsuit by author Harper Lee that accuses it of exploiting one of America's best-loved books.
The lawsuit filed last week by the book's Pulitzer prize-winning author, 87, claims the Monroe County Heritage Museum of illegally profiting from the book. It contends the museum earned more than $500,000 in 2011 by selling goods including aprons, kitchen towels, clothing and coasters emblazoned with the book's title.
Even the museum's website is named for "To Kill a Mockingbird," a novel about small town racism and injustice. The 1960 book has sold more than 30 million copies and has been translated into more than 25 languages.
The 25-year-old museum, located in Monroeville, Alabama, draws thousands of fans each year and includes an old courthouse that served as a model for the courtroom in the movie version of the novel that earned Gregory Peck the Academy Award for Best Actor.
The author has said that the novel's fictional town, Maycomb, and its courthouse were based on Monroeville.
"Every single statement in the lawsuit is either false, meritless, or both," the museum's attorney, Matthew Goforth, told Reuters.
The museum earned only $28,500 from its merchandise sales last year, Goforth said, adding that "every penny of that is being used to further the museum's mission of educating the public and preserving the area's history."
"I find it curious that her handlers suddenly want to profit by suing the museum for essentially preserving and promoting what Ms. Lee helped accomplish for this community," said Goforth.
"The museum is squarely within its rights to carry out its mission as it always has," he added.
An attorney for Lee declined to comment.
The lawsuit in Alabama district court cites a history of challenges between the author and the museum. For example, the museum once created "Calpurnia's Cook Book," named for one of the book's characters. After Lee protested, the book was withdrawn.
When the author sought to register a trademark for the book's title to be used on clothing, the museum opposed it, the lawsuit states, accusing the museum of bad faith and withholding information.
The museum had no intention of denying a share of the museum's profits to the author if that is what she wants from the museum, Goforth said, and was only doing what was necessary to protect its trademark rights in the merchandise it has been selling for many years.
Goforth argued that Monroe County's history cannot be understood without an understanding of the impact of "To Kill a Mockingbird."
"Those pieces were based on Monroe County and are part of its history," said Goforth. If Lee's lawsuit prevailed, the museum would be put out of business, ending its mission to educate local residents and visitors.
"I don't think that's what Harper Lee would want," he said.
The lawsuit argues that despite the museum's declared historical mission, "its actual work does not touch upon history. Rather, its primary mission is to trade upon the fictional story, settings and characters that Harper Lee created."
In the book, a small-town lawyer, Atticus Finch, defends an African-American man unfairly accused of rape during the 1930s "Jim Crow" era, complete with courtroom drama.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and demands that the museum surrender all of its items with the book's title and the author's name and for them to be destroyed.
Lee, who has suffered a stroke, is in declining health and lives in an assisted living facility in Monroeville, according to the lawsuit.
In September, Lee settled a lawsuit against her former literary agent over an alleged scheme to trick her into signing away the copyright to her novel. No details of the agreement were made public.
(Nelle Harper Lee vs. Monroe County Heritage Museum, Inc. Case No.: 1:13-cv-490)
(Additional reporting and editing by David Adams; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)