The United States Tennis Association (USTA) has just reached a settlement with the producers of a documentary movie chronicling the lives of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams in a dispute over unauthorized use of copyrighted material.
The case stems from an agreement between the filmmakers and the USTA, whereby the filmmakers promised to use only footage recorded by the USTA’s approved camera crew, and reviewed by the USTA, subject to a standard licensing agreement. When the USTA’s designated camera crew was unavailable, the USTA gave access to the filmmaker’s crew, which was allowed to film behind the scenes during several tennis ‘majors’ including the U.S. Open. However, the USTA and the filmmakers failed to reach a mutually-acceptable licensing agreement with regard to the footage. The filmmakers ended up using their own footage for the documentary without authorization from the USTA. According to a USA Today article, at issue was a particularly contentious clip by the filmmakers that captured comments by Serena Williams where she “yelled obscenities and used threatening language against a line judge” during a tennis match. The USTA felt the movie portrayed the league, representing all of women’s professional tennis, and the Williams Sisters, two of its brightest stars, unfavorably.
Following the screening of the movie at the Toronto Film Festival, in June of 2013 the United States Tennis Association (USTA) brought a suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against the producers. The USTA sued alleging unlawful misappropriation of video footage, copyright infringement, and other claims. In late 2013, the judge dismissed the claims based upon unjust enrichment, but allowed the other claim to stand. The parties reached an undisclosed settlement last week.
While this case turned on a basic claim of promissory estoppel, it is key that any professional or high profile sporting association, team, or league pays close attention to the agreements it makes when entering into agreements with filmmakers, broadcasters, or networks, particularly with multi-year television agreements, and considers the ramifications of allowing its players, coaches, or owners, to enter into similar agreements with regard to filming stories on individual players.
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