–The lawyer for Tennis Canada CEO Michael Downey and players Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime has sent a cease and desist letter to Christopher Johnson, a tennis photographer seeking payment for unauthorized usage of his photos.
In a May 14 letter, Calgary-based lawyer Blake Hafso accused Mr. Johnson of “an attempt to intimidate and threaten a witness in this litigation with the intent of suppressing their evidence.” He also warned Mr. Johnson that he could potentially face two years in jail for contempt of court.
Mr. Johnson, who filed a copyright lawsuit in Alberta provincial court earlier this year, denies Mr. Hafso’s allegations. He says that Mr. Hafso and his clients from Tennis Canada are “making false accusations” in order to bully and silence a journalist. “They are trying to distort and obscure the fact that they are responsible for failing to pay me for usage of my copyrighted photos for commercial purposes on their social media accounts and Tennis Canada’s official website,” Mr. Johnson said. “The Defendants, not me, are the ones making false accusations and threats in an attempt to bully or intimidate a journalist simply trying to collect payment for his work.”
Mr. Johnson said earlier this year that Mr. Downey’s lawyer David Outerbridge had threatened to sue him for defamation and have him “forcibly removed” from a tennis event in Toronto. “First they use my work without payment. Then they try to ruin my business. Now they are digging a deep hole and throwing mud at me.”
Nothing has been proven in court. The parties must attend a pretrial conference on May 23.
“It is highly inappropriate to seek to threaten and intimidate a witness in this manner during the course of litigation,” said Mr. Hafso. “Tennis Canada has requested you cease and desist direct communications with its employees on many occasions. You have deliberately disregarded those requests. This can only be interpreted as intentional harassment and an intent to influence or dissuade witnesses from testifying on my client’s behalf.”
He said he will ask the court to grant an order “prohibiting further such direct communications.”
Mr. Johnson said Mr. Hafso is “playing a game” to try to trap him, distract him and trick him in court “rather than paying me for usage of my photos or stating justifiable reasons why they shouldn’t have to pay.” He said that he has the right to contact people who owe him money or prevent him from working at tournaments which he has covered for years.
Mr. Johnson filed a civil claim under the Copyright Act in January. He said Mr. Hafso filed a dispute note with more than 30 points in February accusing him of harassment and claiming that they shouldn’t have to pay for usage of his photos. Mr. Johnson said he wrote a 20,000 word refutation of the dispute note. Then Mr. Hafso and his clients offered him a payment of $3500 for using at least seven photos, which Johnson shot at tennis events in Europe between 2015 and 2018.
Mr. Johnson said he declined the offer. The court then instructed both parties to share their materials by May 9 and negotiate a solution ahead of a pre-trial conference May 23.
Mr. Johnson said Mr. Hafso surprised him on the May 9 deadline with materials not mentioned in the dispute note. He said that Mr. Hafso and his clients somehow obtained his private text messages with Natan Levi, and they refused to tell him how they acquired that information. “This refutes their claim that they are acting in good faith,” Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Johnson said he feared that somebody was hacking his private communications, and he wrote directly to Mr. Levi to ask him what happened, since Mr. Hafso wouldn’t answer that question directly. He says that Mr. Levi declined to answer his questions, only saying: “”Hi Chris. I wish you all the best in your challenges with TC (Tennis Canada). I hope there is an amicable solution. Best, Natan.”
“Does this sound like someone being threatened, intimidated and harassed? Of course not,” Mr. Johnson said. “Kindly note that he does not state that he plans to be a witness against me in trial, or that he’s currently or previously working for Tennis Canada. He also doesn’t confirm that he indeed sent my private messages to other parties. Why should I believe that Mr. Levi offered my messages to the Defendants without any form of coercion or pressure from above? I’ve seen no proof of this.”
Mr. Johnson said that Mr. Levi declined to confirm if he works for Tennis Canada, and his Twitter profile makes no mention of his employment with them. Mr. Johnson said that while he has never met Mr. Levi in person, they often exchanged messages about dining and swimming in Croatia. Mr. Johnson said Mr. Levi was a fan of his brothers’ bands Big Sugar and Lemon Bucket Orkestra, and that Mr. Levi asked him to meet up for drinks or tennis sometimes.
“I believe that I have reasonable justification for asking an acquaintance how my personal private messages were obtained for use in a court case. They are my personal private messages, and the Defendants have obtained them without my consent,” Mr. Johnson said. “I had no reason to believe a friendly acquaintance would turn against me as a ‘witness in litigation’. I have not tried to ‘intimidate and threaten’ him.”
Mr. Hafso also accused Mr. Johnson of “surreptitiously” recording communications with Jeff Donaldson, a social media coordinator for Tennis Canada.
Mr. Johnson said he openly recorded a brief public conversation with Mr. Donaldson outside a stadium at the Rogers Cup in August in order to defend himself against a campaign of false accusations against him involving Mr. Donaldson and others under the direction of Mr. Downey. He said Mr. Donaldson and other Tennis Canada employees and associates, including Mike McIntyre and Max Gao, have a history of infringing copyrighted works of photographers and other content creators.
“Mr. Donaldson knew that he was speaking with an experienced, trained working journalist, and I do not recall hiding my cell phone from him,” Mr. Johnson said. “This is standard operating procedure for pro journalists. I have been recording my conversations or interviews with sources or officials since journalism school in the 1980s. Indeed, we are taught to record conversations for this very reason.”
He said Mr. Donaldson and Tennis Canada employees gave false information to ATP security chief Bob Campbell, who questioned Mr. Johnson at a tournament in Ohio in August.
“The transcripts show that I had a brief, polite, civilized encounter with Mr. Donaldson in a crowded public area outside of a tennis stadium during a public event free to the public,” Mr. Johnson said. “I have been working around Tennis Canada people for more than a decade. I have never threatened or physically harmed anyone. In fact, Tennis Canada’s own writer Tom Tebbutt last summer stopped me, while on my way to work in London, to interview me on camera for a video feature about Mr. Shapovalov.”
“It’s clear that I have posed no threat to anyone at Tennis Canada,” Mr. Johnson said. “The Defendants have damaged me by refusing to pay me for my work and preventing me from covering or even attending pro tennis tournaments. I have not damaged them. Indeed the Defendants, Mr. Donaldson and others continue to work for pay in their jobs. They continue to work at tennis events that have banned me. Thus I have justification to defend myself against false accusations raised by the Defendants and their legal teams. None of this gives the Defendants justification to unauthorized usage of my copyrighted works.”