ESPN’s copyright clearance gaffe

I’ve been writing about music clearance but the act of getting the legal permissions to use copyrighted content in your production applies not just to musical works but to art and literary works as well. Not taking the time to get the appropriate licensing can land you in legal trouble as ESPN has just found out.

Last year ESPN broadcast “The Bronx Is Burning”, a popular TV series created by their in-house production company ESPN Original Entertainment. The series portrayed the background events leading to the 1977 New York Yankees dramatic World Series run.

Included in the second episode, “Team In Turmoil“, was a full screen shot of Norman Rockwell’s painting “Bottom of the Sixth“. The painting depicts three umpires looking skyward as raindrops begin to fall. It is a classic Rockwell capturing a unique and wonderful baseball moment. The original painting hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

On May 3rd, the Associated Press reported that ESPN is being sued by Curtis Publishing Company, the owner of the Rockwell painting, for using the image without obtaining a license.

Curtis sent an e-mail to ESPN lawyers notifying them that ESPN did not have a license to use the painting and was committing willful copyright infringement, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit seeks to bar ESPN from rebroadcasting the series until it withdraws use of the painting. In other words, until it removes any footage of the painting from the episode.

Compounding the problem for ESPN is that The Bronx Is Burning has been sold on DVD and VHS format. Recalling the unsold copies and destroying them and having to issue a new movie with the infringement removed will prove costly for the cable network.

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