By most accounts, ESPN's '30 for 30' documentary series has been a hit with fans, providing a deeper perspective into some of the most important recent sports stories from the past three decades. One such entry, It's Time, featured the tale of Chucky Mullins, an Ole Miss football player who was paralyzed in a 1989 game against Vanderbilt and passed away two years later.
The only problem was that another Mullins documentary, Undefeated, already existed. And now the maker of that film is suing the network for copyright infringement. The lawsuit claims ESPN agreed to license footage from Undefeated, but then used it without paying and altered some of the images.
Charles Smith Jr. made Undefeated in 2004, and the film focused on Mullins' life, featuring interviews with his family, friends, teammates, coaches, and Brad Gaines, the opponent Mullins was tackling when he was injured. Mullins and Gaines became friends following the incident during Mullins' time in the hospital.
Wendy Yamano and ESPN allegedly set out to make a film that focused more on Gaines in 2013. But Smith claims Yamano knew about his film, had received not only a copy of the finished film but also the entire archive of digital files, and had orally agreed to license some of footage. Smith's lawsuit accuses ESPN and Yamano of using digitized and altered footage without paying or giving credit to Smith or his film company.
ESPN, on the other hand, claims it didn't use Smith's footage, and, even if it had, that use wouldn't constitute copyright infringement. The network asked the court to dismiss the case, but U.S. District Judge Michael Mills declined, finding "identical or similar footage and photographs featured in Undefeated are also depicted in It's Time":
"Plaintiffs assert that copyright laws protect their storytelling in Undefeated, and that the selection of interviewees and their stories, as well as the sequence in which those stories appear, is included in their storytelling ... A reasonable jury could find that the selection and order of interviews, stories, and historical footage in Undefeated is an original work of authorship, and further, that the Plaintiffs' expression of Mullins' story is protected under copyright law."
The matter of whether ESPN violated that law will therefore be left up to a jury.