An upcoming Showtime documentary called 'Venus and Serena,' which focuses on the famous tennis-playing Williams sisters, could change the way sports are presented in America.
The filmmakers behind the film are being sued by the United States Tennis Association for what it alleges was the use of unauthorized film footage in the documentary by co-directors Maiken Baird and Michelle Major.
The copyright allegations in the lawsuit are fairly straightforward. In circumstances like this, the presiding judge looks at four factors in making their decision - the purpose and character of use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount taken and the effect of the use upon the potential market for the copyrighted work.
What makes this different though is a dispute over access and control. Depending on how the judge rules, the decision could impact documentarians and news organizations heading forward.
The USTA granted the filmmakers access to the U.S. Open, after Major requested accreditation for a "small film crew of 3 or 4 plus 2 producers," later adding that, "We are entirely willing to agree to film only where and what your organization will allow."
The USTA allowed them access, but told them that their footage would be subject to "a standard footage licensing agreement and then applicable 'rate card.'" Major responded to that by agreeing that "we will have to license."
As they filmed, Serena became angry during her match and went on an infamous tirade (here is a video of it). The USTA then got cold feet over the film and tried to assert more control over the footage they filmed, even though the tirade appeared live on broadcast television.
"We had every intention to license archive as well as match footage," Major said. "We had no idea that they had not wanted us to put in parts they saw as bad for tennis."
The USTA argues in the suit 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."
Alex Gibney, the film's executive producer, does not like that, saying that, "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."
In the suit, the USTA says that the filmmakers were told they had a five-minute limit for licensed footage. It says that the license also grants it permission to "exclude the right to broadcast the film on cable and on-demand television during the three-week period in which the U.S. Open is held."
The USTA just completed a $770 million contract with ESPN for 11-years worth of tennis.
If the judge rules in favor of the USTA, access to sporting events for documentaries and/or news purposes could drastically change as the leagues could disallow certain aspects from airing.
"As documentary filmmakers we have to maintain control over content," Major said.
Let's see if the judge agrees.