USTA Seeks Ruling on Use of US Open Footage in ‘Venus and Serena’ Documentary

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The United States Tennis Association (USTA) is matching up the documentary “Venus and Serena,” in New York federal court. On Friday, June 14, 2013, the USTA filed suit against Maiken Baird and Michelle Major, the filmmakers behind the documentary that follows the lives of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. The suit alleges that the filmmakers infringed USTA’s exclusive copyrights for the annual U.S. Open tennis competition.

The lawsuit contends that the filmmakers were granted limited access to film portions of the 2011 U.S. Open subject to a standard footage licensing “rate card.” Although Major agreed to the licensing agreement, the filmmakers did not make any payment for licensing, leaving the USTA to believe the documentary fell through.

 The USTA is also putting up a fight over archived footage from the 2009 U.S. Open when Serena Williams berated a line judge after a call she disagreed with. According to the suit, filmmakers were told of a five minute limit to licensed footage. However, the defendants went beyond that limit with the archived footage.  Further, the USTA 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.”

The filmmakers have responded that Serena’s 2009 explosion fell under the fair use exception to a copyright owners right to control the film.

USTA’s Complaint also includes causes of action for unfair competition and promissory estoppel. The USTA contends that the filmmakers expressly promised to abide by the USTA’s policies and procedures for U.S. Open footage. In addition, the USTA reasonably relied upon this promise when they granted the filmmakers access to “pre-approved behind-the-scenes footage for their Film.”

The documentary has been set to air on Showtime on July 1, 2013, but the USTA suit may cause the network to rethink the premier.  Major and Baird believe the lawsuit is a ploy to bully the filmmakers from releasing the documentary.  Serena Williams herself praised the documentary and said that “people can see our dynamic” and “its kind of the real insight on our life.”


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