SBJ/Aug. 4-10, 2014/Events and Attractions

Wimbledon faces plagiarism controversy involving annual books

Sports teams, leagues and events often aggressively protect their intellectual property, whether it’s targeting unauthorized use of their logos, footage or names.

Far less common is when the shoe is on the other foot, as is the case with Wimbledon, which has been selling annual coffee table-type books that contain plagiarized material.

Reports of the plagiarism broke recently, and the writer of the yearbook and the tournament have both publicly confirmed that there was plagiarism. The books, however, were still available for purchase on Amazon’s United Kingdom website last week despite the tournament knowing about the matter since at least March.

The books were still being offered on Amazon last week despite the controversy.

“Our lawyers [are] looking into the situation,” wrote Jason Stallman, sports editor of The New York Times, in an email. The Times is one of the publications subject to the plagiarism. Stallman referred further queries to a Times spokeswoman, who wrote, “We do not have comment at this time.”

Sports Illustrated, another affected publication, said in a statement: “We are obviously very disappointed in the events that transpired and we appreciate all parties involved understanding the magnitude of the transgression.”

The annual yearbook is a roundup of that year’s tournament, with descriptions of key matches and players. In some cases, those descriptions were copied word for word from other publications.

Remedies for the affected news outlets are difficult in part because of jurisdictional complexities. Wimbledon and the book’s publisher, Vision Sports Publishing, are based in the U.K., while Sports Illustrated and The New York Times are U.S.-based. Numerous overseas newspapers are also involved.

Wimbledon is owned and run by the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club.

The biggest damage ultimately is reputational, said James Donoian, a partner in McCarter & English, where he specializes in intellectual property.

“Wimbledon holds itself to a higher standard — people have to dress a certain way — so from a reputation and PR perspective, this can be very damaging,” he said.

Donoian said he expects lawyers for news outlets at the very least to send strongly worded letters to the All England Club demanding it cease sales of the books.

Wimbledon notified the book’s contract writer, Neil Harman, of the issue in March and told him he would no longer be writing the annual, the writer has said publicly. He had written the annual since 2004. A reporter for The (London) Times, Harman is a dean of sorts in tennis journalism overseas. He covered the 2014 event and attended the traditional Champions Ball at the All England Club’s invitation.

News of the plagiarism broke in Slate and Deadspin after this year’s tournament, leading The Times to suspend Harman.

Wimbledon spokesman Johnny Perkins noted that when informed of the issue earlier this year, the Club stripped Harman of his role writing this year’s annual yearbook. Perkins did not answer why copies of the yearbooks were still on sale through Amazon and had been available in the Wimbledon gift shop until the end of the tournament.

Slate reported there were 52 combined cases of plagiarized material in the 2011, 2012 and 2013 annuals.

The reporter who wrote the story for Slate, Ben Rothenberg, freelances regularly for The New York Times, but the newspaper turned him down for the story because the publication was one of the victims, he said on a podcast last week.

The business of the annual yearbook is relatively limited for Wimbledon, which rakes in more than $200 million annually. The Club sells a few thousand copies, Perkins said, at an average price of $34 each.

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