(Tennis Canada CEO and President Michael S. Downey, on his personal Facebook account, comments on Christopher Johnson’s photo posted on Tennis Canada’s official Facebook account in May 2018. Johnson claims that Mr. Downey and his staff did not credit him for this photo, and they did not obtain his expressed written formal authorization for usage. He says they have failed to pay him for this and dozens of other forms of unauthorized usage of his work. Mr. Johnson claims that Mr. Downey, Denis Shapovalov and others have used his photos for commercial gain. Mr. Johnson says that Mr. Downey blocked him on Facebook and Twitter and led a campaign against him of legal threats and blacklisting outside of his normal employment duties. Mr. Downey has filed a dispute note to these claims in Alberta provincial court in Canada.)
(Veteran Tennis Canada writer Tom Tebbutt interviews Christopher Johnson during Wimbledon 2018 about Canadian phenom Denis Shapovalov. Mr. Johnson praised Mr. Shapovalov, Tennis Canada and the support team around him.)
Veteran journalist Christopher Johnson, who has covered tennis tournaments worldwide for more than a decade, has filed a civil claim in Alberta provincial court against Tennis Canada CEO and President Michael Downey and players Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime for allegedly violating Canada’s Copyright Act between 2015 and 2018.
The defendants have disputed the claims in a 28-point note filed with the court through a law firm in Calgary. The defendants denied they broke the law, and they claimed that Johnson benefited from “exposure”, “photo credit” and the “promotional value” of Tennis Canada’s sites using his work. They said their usage of Johnson’s photographs wasn’t for commercial purposes, and it was either “unintentional” or based on a “reasonable belief” they had consent to reproduce his work. They have asked Johnson to pay them “enhanced costs” for the court action.
Johnson says that his evidence refutes each point in the dispute note.
In his court filings, Johnson claims that the defendants have refused to pay him for using his photographs from 2015 to 2018 for commercial purposes on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other platforms including Tennis Canada’s official site without his expressed formal written consent.
“Tennis Canada employees, including President and CEO Michael Downey, and popular players Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime, never contacted me to request usage of my photos on their pages and sites and Tennis Canada’s pages and sites. They often lifted my work without permission, payment or credit. I can prove that this pattern of behavior has been common at Tennis Canada, and it violates Canada’s Copyright Act,” Johnson wrote in his lawsuit. “These copyrighted works include my original photographs of Milos Raonic, Denis Shapovalov, Felix Auger-Aliassime and others playing between 2015 and 2018 in Madrid, Rome, Paris and other tournaments.”
Johnson said he spent months trying to resolve issues out of court with Tennis Canada CEO Downey and his Toronto-based lawyer David Outerbridge. He accused them of “heavy-handed attempts to threaten, bully, intimidate, stonewall and aggravate me in order to ‘get me on a technicality’ or force me to delay or drop my case.”
“They are causing me considerable stress that is damaging my ability to concentrate on paying assignments for clients,” Johnson said.
He said the legal team “made unlawful threats of violence against me, including threats to have me ‘forcibly removed’ from a Tennis Canada event that I was attending lawfully and peacefully along with thousands of other people.”
“Rather than paying me for my work, Tennis Canada employees have also made false and damaging accusations against me. I have kept these recordings and communications to prove my innocence,” Johnson said.
Johnson wrote that Tennis Canada’s official website is a de facto media organization and direct competitor with his website GrandSlamMagazine, which has posted more than 100 original feature stories from tennis events the past 10 years. He said that Tennis Canada, which gives itself the power to accredit or ban journalists at tennis events, is acting as “player and referee” and taking action to blacklist him from events.
“By seeking legal remedies in court, I am hoping to rebuild my business and reputation, and build better relations with Tennis Canada. I hope to continue to focus on covering tennis events and supplying media organizations worldwide with high quality work, which I have been doing as a full-time working journalist since 1984.”
Tennis Canada, which receives millions of dollars in funding from taxpayers and donors in Alberta and elsewhere, is a federal corporation consisting of Tennis Alberta and other provincial bodies overseeing tennis in Canada. Johnson said that Tennis Canada is a de facto media organization advertising products (such as posters, hats and clothing) and promoting the Rogers Cup, Davis Cup and other events which generate millions of dollars in revenue.
“Without a reasonable doubt, Tennis Canada is using text, photos, videos and other forms of media content for commercial purposes. Thus it’s a media organization competing directly with my media organization,” Johnson said.
Tennis Canada CEO and President Michael S. Downey claims on LinkedIn that he’s responsible for a $75 million business “which spends $15 million annually to grow the game of tennis.” Downey also claims that he reports to a “volunteer board of directors” and oversees “full time staff contingent of 120”.
British press reports claimed that Downey earned around a million dollars per year as head of the Lawn Tennis Association before returning to lead Tennis Canada. His current remuneration from Tennis Canada is not clear.
It’s also not clear how much Downey and Tennis Canada have paid writers, photographers and their digital communications team. Past and current employees claim that Tennis Canada has often used unpaid volunteers and interns, or low-paid staff. Other photographers have claimed that Tennis Canada has used their work without payment.
“If Tennis Canada, with 120 full-time employees, is indeed spending $15 million annually, they can clearly afford to pay photographers,” Johnson said.
Tennis Canada has claimed that about five million Canadians — about one in every seven people — are what they call “occasional tennis players”.
“Thus Tennis Canada and its websites are targeting an audience of more than five million Canadians, similar to the markets for CBC, CTV and other major media organizations that have employed me,” Johnson said. “Rather than helping me build my tennis business in Canada, Tennis Canada has repeatedly taken actions to prevent or disrupt the growth of my business in Alberta, Canada and around the world.”
Johnson said he often posts his photos online to promote the sale of his commercial photography to clients and potential buyers. “This does not give Tennis Canada or anyone else the right to use my work without payment. Most other organizations and individuals respect these rights. Tennis Canada did not.”
“Tennis Canada cannot claim the legal right to usage of the photographs of a competing media organization, whether our work appears on our sites or on our social media accounts used to promote the sale of commercial photography,” Johnson said. “If Tennis Canada can steal from competitors, then the Globe and Mail could simply lift the work of Toronto Star photographers off social media accounts or websites without paying them, and my websites could use all of the photos, videos and other materials of Tennis Canada from its websites and social media accounts. Canada’s Copyright Act is clear on these matters, giving photographers ownership of their intellectual property by default.”
Johnson claims that Tennis Canada employees, including Downey, have tried to block and blacklist him.
“When I attempted to communicate this summer with Tennis Canada’s President and CEO Michael Downey about these issues, he blocked me on Facebook. Tennis Canada’s official site on Twitter also blocked me, thus damaging my business and relations with the tennis community. Tennis Canada officials blacklisted me from Tennis Canada’s Rogers Cup and other events, and made false accusations damaging my business and reputation.”
“After I contacted Mr. Downey, Tennis Canada removed some or all of these posts containing my works. This proves that Tennis Canada did in fact make substantial unauthorized usage of my photographs, and then tried to hide that fact by removing their posts instead of paying me, the content creator. If Tennis Canada employees were convinced that they had the legal right to use my works, then they would have no reason to hastily remove them.”
“Since Tennis Canada took the actions of removing posts of my copyrighted work, Tennis Canada should have a record of all of the photos that they used. Tennis Canada, its employees and players cannot post my work, remove those posts, and then demand that I send them screenshots,” Johnson said. “Most responsible media organizations carefully record details of work provided by their suppliers, and then pay them on time (usually within 30 days) without requiring screenshots or other proof. All of these points prove without a doubt that Tennis Canada infringed my intellectual property without paying me.”
Johnson said that Mr. Downey and Tennis Canada employees and associates launched a campaign to block him on social media, causing damages to his business, reputation and ability to communicate with colleagues that might hype his work for commercial purposes.
Tennis Canada’s website claims that their donors include Andrzej Kepinski, agent for rising star Denis Shapovalov, as well as TD Bank Group, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Vancouver Lawn Tennis Club and many others across Canada involved in tennis. “Tennis Canada’s actions against me, including infringement of my works, have effectively damaged my opportunities to develop business relations or seek advertisements, donations or funding from these same sources involved in Canada’s tennis community,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he’s been accredited at major sporting events worldwide throughout his career including world championships in basketball, soccer, volleyball, and tennis events in Melbourne, Dubai, Madrid, Rome, Paris, Wimbledon, Montreal, Ohio, Tokyo, Prague and elsewhere.
“This summer, I worked as an accredited journalist at major tournaments including Wimbledon in London and the French Open in Paris, and sold my work to clients. Yet Tennis Canada, after using my work without authorization, denied me accreditation for the Rogers Cup in Toronto only three days before the start of the tournament, after I had already paid for travel from Europe. This action is unreasonable, unethical, immoral and in violation of Canadian laws protecting journalists.”
He said Tennis Canada employees made false accusations about him to a security official at a tournament in Ohio, “damaging my ability to work there”.
“I am one of the most qualified, experienced journalists on the international tennis tour, and I have always conducted myself in a responsible, professional manner at tournaments. I have the right to communicate with people to defend myself and stop them from infringing my intellectual property and using it for commercial purposes or any other purpose, as per Canada’s Copyright Act. My communications with Tennis Canada employees and others about this does not constitute harassment and aggression,” Johnson said.
“I have spent years seeking payments from several organizations worldwide that have used my works without authorization. Indeed, many photographers have been forced to take court action to protect their intellectual properties. Yet organizations such as Tennis Canada continue to believe that they somehow “own” anything posted on the internet.”
Johnson said that Mr. Downey was responsible for these policies and corporate culture. He said copyright infringement is rampant in tennis media.
In his legal filings, Johnson said he’s accustomed to receiving payment for work from clients including CTV, CBC, the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Post, New York Times, Washington Times, Christian Science Monitor, CNN, BBC and many others worldwide. “Thus I do not work for free.”
Since graduating from Carleton University’s School of Journalism in Ottawa in 1987, Johnson has worked in more than 100 countries and 10 war zones including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, East Timor and the former Yugoslavia for major media worldwide, according to Johnson’s bio on various websites.
“My work reconstructing the Suai church massacre for the Associated Press in East Timor in 1999 helped prosecute war criminals. Reuters has listed my 2008 work in Lhasa, Tibet among their Pictures of the Decade. The Canadian Association of Journalists in 2014 nominated my work from a disaster zone in the Philippines for Best Online Media competing with CBC, Global and Huffington Post,” Johnson wrote in his court filings.
“Tennis federations of other countries pay photographers for their work. Tennis Canada cannot claim that it has the right to use my work for free because other ‘photographers’ (who are often amateurs on vacation) will give them photographs for free. Bonafide, full-time pro photographers with expensive equipment and living costs cannot afford to give away their work for free. My friends and colleagues at Getty, AFP, the Toronto Star and elsewhere don’t work for free. I alone have complete ownership and copyright of my work, and I have the right to demand legal remedies to receive payment.”
He said that Mr. Downey and his lawyers receive hourly, weekly or monthly salaries and payments while dragging him through a legal process. “As an independent journalist, I do not receive payment for time spent on this case. In fact, the time and energy spent on this legal process causes me to lose money, and damages my ability to focus time and energy on my work.”