The Abuse of Authors

Two events this week have set me onto my high horse. First was the announcement from author Tess Gerritson regarding her lawsuit against Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema. It seems she had a deal with New Line for the movie that became GRAVITY starring Sandra Bullock. But in the interim between signing her deal and the release of the movie, Warner Brothers bought New Line and one of their directors “wrote” the movie based on Tess’s story, and made GRAVITY without giving her any credit or the money she was promised. She sued and was told that Warner was under no obligation to honor the New Line contract. The decision was based on some sort of shortcoming in the original filing, and her legal team is now crafting an amendment that may give her another chance to recover what is morally, if not legally, hers.

The second event was the announcement on Tuesday that Harper will publish Harper Lee’s  “Go Set a Watchman”: in July. The press release says “Watchman” was the original book that Lee intended to publish but her editor was so taken with the voice of the young girl “Scout” that Lee was asked to revise the book to tell the story from Scout’s point of view. That book of course became “To Kill A Mockingbird”  which won the Pulitzer Prize and to date has sold more than 40 million copies. “Watchman” is set in the 1950’s and is about Scout as a grown woman, looking back on her childhood. Like most of the rest of the world, I loved Mockingbird and under different circumstances I would be overjoyed with the announcement of another Harper Lee novel. But by reliable accounts, Harper Lee who is now 88 years old, is frail and significantly debilitated after a stroke. Two of her family members, speaking anonymously said that at the funeral of Miss Lee’s older sister Alice a few months ago, Miss Lee sat in her wheelchair mumbling to herself and shouting at inappropriate times. Yet the press release announcing this new novel contained an extremely lucid quote from Miss Lee, giving the background on the book and expressing her delight that this new novel will be published. When her editor was asked about this apparent disconnect, he said that he is confident she is fully cognizant of the situation and is looking forward to publication. But he admitted he has not seen her or spoken to her in more than 8 years.

I’m not making any wild accusations that I can’t prove. But it makes me uneasy that this frail woman, alone now in the world except for her lawyer and editor and a few friends suddenly discovers a manuscript she thought was lost and is in good enough health to participate in its publication when just three months ago she was wheelchair bound and nearly incoherent. Especially coming as it does on the heels of a 2013 lawsuit in which Miss Lee sued her then literary agent whom she said duped her into signing over to him the copyright of Mockingbird.She was 87 years old then and said she did not remember signing such a document.The suit was settled in September of 2013.

What is it about our culture that makes it okay to steal an author’s work, exploit it for gain without paying for it? Or in the case of Miss Lee, perhaps taking advantage of an infirmity? Miss Gerritson and Miss Lee are at least lucky enough to have the financial resources to fight back. Most authors don’t. Not every author has to fight movie companies, but even modestly successful authors must be constantly on guard against pirates that steal their work and put it up online, free for the asking. For every pirate site that is discovered, there are others that go undetected and book sales suffer for it. This is simply theft and those who take advantage of pirate sites are just as despicable as the pirates themselves.

In other countries, Japan for instance, or Argentina, which in 2011 considered paying published authors a monthly stipend to allow them to continue creating literature, writers are honored and their work is valued as important to the culture. Here, not so much.