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Mitchell bequest gives church revenue stream, role in protecting legacy

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August 30, 2012

Catholic News Service

ATLANTA — Because of a generous bequest from Joseph Mitchell, the late nephew of celebrated author Margaret Mitchell, the Atlanta Archdiocese now owns 50 percent of the literary rights to her Pulitzer prize-winning, best-selling novel, “Gone With the Wind.”


A young Margaret Mitchell is pictured with her mother, Maybelle Stephens Mitchell, and her brother, Stephens. A collection of the American author's personal effects were part of a multimillion-dollar bequest made to the Archdiocese of Atlanta by the her last direct descendant, nephew Joseph Mitchell. He died last October. (CNS photo/courtesy of Atlanta Archdiocese)

But what does this mean for the Archdiocese of Atlanta? The short answer: continuing revenue from sales of books and merchandise and participation in protecting the copyright of Margaret Mitchell’s legacy.


Deacon Steve Swope, who has been instrumental in making arrangements for the bequest, said the archdiocese will be diligent in continuing to honor Mitchell’s opus, following in the footsteps of her late brother, prominent Atlanta attorney Stephens Mitchell.


He said, “His mission was to protect the dignity of the work, and we are going to carry that on. We are going to fiercely protect it from infringement. We have an obligation to do that.”


First published in 1936 by Macmillan, the book sold 176,000 copies at its original release and was a runaway success. According to Publishers Weekly, by the end of 1938 more than a million copies had sold, and that number doubled after the release of the movie in 1939.


Today, an estimated 30 million copies have sold worldwide. Simon and Schuster now publishes the book, which sells an estimated 75,000 copies every year in hardcover and other formats.


According to “Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller’s Odyssey From Atlanta to Hollywood,” by Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley Jr., the publisher expects a “profitable future for the remainder of the copyright term,” which ends in the U.S. in 2031, some 95 years after the first publication.


The book has been translated more than 30 times, including in countries as diverse as Albania, Chile, Denmark, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Turkey, Japan, Finland, the former Yugoslavia and Burma. New editions continue to be published in Europe and Asia, although the copyright has expired in Canada and Japan.


When Margaret died in 1949, and her husband, John Marsh, three years later, their estate and the entire literary rights went to her brother, Stephens, a real estate attorney and faithful Catholic in Atlanta. He in turn left the rights in trusts split between his sons, Eugene and Joseph.


In the 1960s, Stephens later turned to law partners Paul H. Anderson Sr. and Thomas Hal Clarke Sr. for help in managing the copyright protection of his sister’s book in the U.S. and abroad. Formally called the Stephens Mitchell Trust, the group was known as “the Committee.”


Paul H. Anderson Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps in 1976 to work with the Mitchell estate, along with Thomas Hal Clarke Jr., the son of the other attorney. Together they have protected the copyright for decades. While the senior Clarke is retired at 98, the senior Anderson at 94 still serves on the Committee and has a perspective of the copyrights going back to the 1950s.


According to the junior Anderson, Stephens “did more than anyone to preserve and enhance the rights” of his sister’s work.


The Committee, said Anderson, “had the fiduciary responsibility to manage the business.” As loyal friends of Stephens, they have protected the book against copyright infringements, including those who have wanted to write sequels, produce dramas, create musicals and other works based on “Gone With the Wind.”


They have pursued litigation in several cases, with mixed success. And Anderson said that they “choose their battles” carefully.


In Japan, where the copyright recently expired, there is a “Gone With the Wind” drama. A Canadian production is going on, without permission of the estate, though the copyright has expired there, so none is required. Producers of the Canadian drama have asked for the right to take the production to the international stage. Anderson said they’ll wait to see how that production is received in Canada.


Sales are still brisk in countries across the globe, particularly, said Anderson, in “countries who have suffered defeat in war.”


Anderson said the owners of the trusts — and the archdiocese is now one of the owners — are entitled to “fairly significant” royalties from proceeds of book sales (the original novel and the two authorized sequels), merchandising, and at least $100,000 per year from the movie rights. He declined to name an exact figure.


The caretaking of the trust and the literary rights will continue to be done by the lawyers of the Committee, on behalf of Eugene’s heirs and the Archdiocese of Atlanta, in a new entity recently established to continue the tradition of protecting one of the best-selling novels in the world.

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