USTA Sues ‘Venus & Serena’ Filmmakers

     MANHATTAN (CN) – The U.S. Tennis Association claims in court that a documentary moviemaker used its films of Venus and Serena Williams at the U.S. Open without permission.
     The U.S. Tennis Association sued the creators of “Venus and Serena” – VSW Productions LLC, M & M Films and directors Maiken Baird and Michelle Major – in Federal Court.
     The Williams sisters are not parties to the complaint.
     Slated for broadcast on Showtime on July 1, the film focuses on the Williams sisters’ “compelling personal histories and unprecedented success in professional tennis,” using “both archival footage and photographs of the sisters throughout their careers,” according to the complaint.
     The filmmakers landed “behind the scenes footage of the sisters” that the production crew captured throughout 2011, the USTA says.
     “Not surprisingly, defendants wished to include in their film footage from the U.S. Open, the pinnacle of professional tennis and a tournament which each of the sisters has won multiple times,” the complaint states.
     In July 2011, Major asked the USTA for permission to mine its archives, in a letter stating: “We are entirely willing to agree to film only where and what your organization will allow,” according to the complaint.
     The USTA says it told the filmmakers that it usually fields these requests by engaging a film crew with experience shooting the U.S. Open, then licensing the footage from its library under its customary agreement and rate card.
     Major replied, “[T]hank you for the USTA’s generous offer to engage a crew (for which we will pay) to capture the events at the US Open for us since [the USTA] will not allow us to follow the sisters with our own cameras during the tournament,” according to the complaint. (Brackets and parentheses as in complaint.)
     The filmmakers provided a “wish list” of what they wanted filmed, including a request for on-court sound for bouts between the siblings, the USTA says.
     “However, shortly prior to the commencement of the 2011 U.S. Open, the USTA’s scheduled videographer for this assignment became unavailable,” the complaint states. “Accordingly, as a generous and unprecedented accommodation to Ms. Baird and Ms. Major, and in an effort to support M & M’s stated goal of promoting tennis, the USTA, as a one-time exception, permitted M & M’s own film crew direct (albeit restricted) access to the NTC to record off-court, ancillary footage at the US Open for use in the film.”
     But the “Venus and Serena” film crew furtively rolled tape in restricted areas, the USTA says.
     The association claims it was “stunned to discover” more than 20 minutes of unlicensed U.S. Open footage in the documentary, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Oct. 10, 2012.
     “Given the USTA’s generosity toward defendants in accommodating their request for accreditation, the USTA was shocked and dismayed to discover that, in utter disregard of the USTA’s express positions taken during the parties’ pre-U.S. Open discussions, defendants had chosen to include in the film over twenty minutes of unlicensed U.S. Open footage,” the complaint states.
     The association says it deemed much of that footage “not to be in the best interest of the sport.”
     The USTA seeks damages for copyright infringement, unjust enrichment and promissory estoppel, and an injunction stopping broadcast of the documentary.
     It is represented by Jeffrey Carlton and Joanna Sandolo, of White Plains.

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