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US productions of To Kill a Mockingbird cancelled as rights clash with Broadway producer intensifies

The UK tour of To Kill a Mockingbird was cancelled in January. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Further productions of To Kill a Mockingbird have reportedly been shut down after legal threats by producer Scott Rudin over the rights to the play.

Several professional and amateur versions of the show have been cancelled across the US, following the collapse of a forthcoming major UK tour as a result of Rudin’s efforts.

The UK tour was due to be produced by Jonathan Church Productions, Curve and Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre but was pulled in January – just weeks before it was due to start – after Rudin’s Broadway production claimed worldwide exclusivity of the rights.

Rudin is the lead producer on the new Broadway version of To Kill a Mockingbird, written by Aaron Sorkin. He argues that author Harper Lee signed the exclusive rights over to him, meaning his is the only production that is permitted to be performed.

The New York Times reported that Rudin’s lawyers, backed by the Lee estate, have told at least eight theatres that their productions cannot take place because his version has been given exclusive stage rights.

These include companies such as the Kavinoky Theater in Buffalo, New York, which said it received a cease and desist notice from the lawyers, and the Oklahoma Children’s Theater, which said it could not afford to risk the cost of losing a lawsuit and also cancelled its plans to stage the play.

All theatres had paid for the rights to stage the play in a version by Christopher Sergel, which they licensed from the Dramatic Publishing Company. DPC also provided the rights to the cancelled British production.

Reports have suggested that DPC could take its dispute with Rudin to the courts. However, the company did not respond to a request for comment from The Stage.

A statement given to the New York Times by Rudin said: “We hate to ask anybody to cancel any production of a play anywhere, but the productions in question as licensed by DPC infringe on rights licensed to us by Harper Lee directly. The Sergel play can contractually continue to be performed under set guidelines as described in detail in its own agreement with Harper Lee – and as long as those guidelines are adhered to, we have no issue with the play having a long life.”

These “guidelines” are thought to refer to a clause in the original 1969 licensing contract which states that if a “first-class dramatic play” based on the novel is playing in New York, no other productions can run within 25 miles of cities that had a population of 150,000 or more in 1960.

Daniel Evans: Performing rights need to work fairly for everyone

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