Filmmakers who have made a documentary about tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams may have crossed the line and get called out. The United States Tennis Association has filed a complaint in New York federal court against filmmakers Maiken Baird and Michelle Major alleging that the filmmakers used unauthorized footage in their film.
Most observers say this isn’t just a straightforward case about copyright infringement. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the lawsuit will spark a “deeper discussion for documentarians and news organizations about access and control.”
Anyone who gets footage of USTA events has been approved by the organization. In the lawsuit the USTA claims the filmmakers approached them about being able to film at the 2011 U.S. Open—and they have emails from the filmmakers to back up this clam. USTA says it informed the filmmakers that any footage they took would be subject to a “standard footage licensing agreement and then applicable ‘rate card.’”
The filmmakers complied.
“We had every intention to license archive as well as match footage,” Major told THR. “We had no idea that they had not wanted us to put in parts they saw as bad for tennis.”
By “bad for tennis,” Major is referencing Serena’s infamous 2009 outburst. This, says Major is what made the “USTA nervous about the film and over-controlling over what footage would be allowed for the documentary,” reports THR. The USTA admits it is looking out the the good of the sport. The organization says in the lawsuit that it has “strict internal editorial guidelines concerning the nature and subject matter of the footage it agrees to license to ensure that the licensed footage is in the best interest of the sport.”
This does not sit well with the folks behind the documentary. “The USTA’s efforts to censor this film about America’s most inspiring female athletes don’t change the fact that my colleagues were entirely within their legal rights to use a small amount of widely seen footage,” the film’s executive producer, Oscar-winner Alex Gibney, told THR.
But the lawsuit is more than just about image—it is about money as well. Court papers indicate that USTA may also be concerned about protecting its TV deals. According to the magazine, the USTA recently signed a $770-million exclusive contract for 11 years with ESPN. So the USTA doesn’t want a Showtime film interfering with the deal.
Regardless of the reasons for the suit, the filmmakers stand firm. Major tells THR, “As documentary filmmakers we have to maintain control over content.”