Columns > Published on March 9th, 2015

Five of the Juiciest Literary Lawsuits

It’s a sad reflection on humanity when your assessment of literary lawsuits comes down to greed, or mental health issues. And as mentioned by Scholastic in the J. K. Rowling lawsuit, success seems to breed not only imitation, but also litigation.

But, here we find ourselves…

There are so many juicy literary lawsuits that I had difficulty whittling it down to the most outrageous. If you have any others you think warrant a mention, feel free to comment!


Harper Lee — 'To Kill A Mockingbird'

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of America’s most iconic literary pieces. And its author sued her former agent, alleging he took advantage of her age and inability to make decisions, swindling her of hundreds of thousands in royalties.

The lawsuit alleged that while Harper Lee was living in an assisted living aged-care facility, having suffered a stroke, 95% blind, and also suffering from hearing issues, she signed her copyright interests in her famous novel to her agent’s company. On top of this, she claimed she didn’t remember signing away her rights.

The lawsuit settled. While the details remain confidential, it’s been reported that Harper Lee is happy with the outcome.

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J.K. Rowling — Various Harry Potter related suits

Next up – England’s favourite children’s author.  In the first lawsuit of interest, a relatively unknown American author – Nancy Stouffer —  (and please correct me if I’m wrong here and she’s a cult favourite I’m unaware of) sued Rowling, claiming she stole the term Muggles, and various ideas from her novel The Legend of Rah and The Muggles.

The book had been out of print. When the lawsuit originated, Stouffer’s US publisher, Thurman House, began reprinting it.

Whilst there were similarities – a character named Larry Potter (yep, I laughed at this) who was raised by muggles (also non magical humans here), the outcome was in Rowling’s favour, with some serious findings that Stouffer had submitted fraudulent documents to the court and an untruthful testimony, and changed pages after the fact to retroactively include the word muggles.

There have been other copyright and trademark claims against Rowling, even including Rowling’s alleged legal threats against Harry Potter fan fiction writing.  

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Chris Kyle & the Kyle Estate — 'American Sniper'

The novel behind the blockbuster movie sold more than 1.5 million copies by July of 2014.

While it’s not doubted that Chris Kyle, military “hero” and author of American Sniper, killed an awful lot of people (160 confirmed kills, according to The Washington Post, 255 kills according to Kyle himself), many of his claims have come under fire with allegations that he’s full of shit.  Like claiming he and his buddies killed “bad guys” in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, or the defamatory story he told about Jesse Ventura, the former Minnesota governor.  

It was his least outrageous tall tale about Ventura that got Kyle (or his estate, due to his death in 2013) into legal hot water.  In early drafts, Kyle described beating up Ventura in a bar, after Ventura stated that all American soldiers who went to Iraq deserved to die.

Kyle’s publishers sensibly feared litigation, and removed Ventura’s name from this part of the story, referring to a more anonymous character “Scruff Face”. However, in a follow up radio interview, Kyle confirmed that Scruff Face was actually Jesse Ventura.

Ventura sued Kyle for defamation (and continued against Kyle’s estate after his death), and a federal jury returned from six days of deliberations to award Ventura $1.845 million in damages.

Since then, Ventura has pursued Harper Collins, the publisher of American Sniper. Stay tuned…

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James Dashner — 'The Maze Runner'

In 2005, Tize Clark self-published a novel The Maze. Clark, a New Mexico resident, claims that the successful YA novel and movie The Maze Runner blatantly ripped him off.

In an interview with KRQE News 13, Clark alleges that James Dashner, author of The Maze Runner, and the screenwriters of the associated movie, used parts of his book. Clark’s attorney, Doug Compton states:

We not only found that Dashner committed the copyright infringement, but the screenwriters also took elements out of Tize’s book that Dashner didn’t copy, to fit the setting of the movie.

The alleged copyright infringement includes the central story about teens stuck inside a maze with moving walls, that the groups start as male with girls joining, the teens were chased by non-human creatures, and included a garden with tombstones in the middle.

There appears to be no easily available online information about the progress of this law suit… so watch this space!

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Tess Gerritsen — 'Gravity'

Gravity was the sci-fi blockbuster hit of 2013, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. It received 10 nominations at the Academy Awards, winning 7 awards including Best Director. It grossed more than US $716 million worldwide.

In 1999, author Tess Gerritsen sold the film rights to her novel, Gravity, to New Line Productions. In April 2014, she launched a lawsuit against Warner Bros (who acquired New Line Productions), claiming that they’d used her novel as a basis for the film, disregarding her contractual rights (such as entitlement to profits and screen credits) with New Line Productions.

As lawsuits are prone to be, it’s complicated and, frankly, quite boring. Gerritsen did not make a copyright claim – she claimed that Warner Bros created the screenplay based on her novel, and should have honoured her contract with New Line Productions. The judge dismissed Gerritsen’s lawsuit, stating that Warner Bros was not a party to her contracts:

"No plausible inference arises from these allegations that WB was a party to the contracts or that Katja produced the film”, Morrow stated, adding that Gerritsen does not detail “how it is that WB exercises complete management, control, ownership and domination over New Line and Katja. Without a factual basis, her conclusory allegations are insufficient."

Whilst the case was dismissed, Gerritsen was given 20 days to amend her claim. On Thursday 22 February, Gerritsen’s lawyer filed an amended claim. Another case of watch this space!

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Honourable mentions should go to J.D.Salinger for The Catcher in the Rye related suits, Hemingway for a biography called Papa Hemingway, the women suing the creators of Frozen stating it’s based on the life of her and her sister, and Kathryn Stockett author of The Help.

Have you found any literary lawsuits particularly entertaining?

About the author

In a previous life, Jessica worked for 12 years in the legal industry, with her last purely legal role being the corporate counsel for a property management company in Australia. Since then, she’s been the editor for an online literary journal and currently manages a music/tech start-up. She also freelancers as a contract lawyer and content producer, and writes regular columns for Litreactor and Gypsy Girl.

Jessica’s fiction and poetry has appeared in or is upcoming in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (Aus), Beware the Dark (UK), Kaleidotrope, Plasma Frequency Magazine, and Pantheon Magazine.

She loves swimming, and like Peter Singer, considers herself a flexible vegan and focuses on the welfarist approach to animal rights.

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