In 1984, Jacobus Rentmeester, then a student, photographed basketball star Michael Jordan for Life magazine. The photo was part of a photo essay featuring American athletes who would soon be competing in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games.
Rentmeester’s claimed that Nike infringed his copyright when it later commissioned its own photograph of Jordan and then used that photo to create its famous trademark, ‘Jumpman’.
What stood out about Rentmeester’s photograph was that he asked Jordan to strike an unusual pose for a basketball player, one inspired by ballet’s grand jeté.
Not long after his photo appeared in Life magazine, Nike contacted him and asked to borrow colour transparencies of the photo. Rentmeester provided the company with two colour transparencies for $150 under a limited license authorising Nike to use the transparencies “for slide presentation only.”
In late 1984 or early 1985, Nike hired a photographer to produce a photograph of Jordan, one obviously inspired by Rentmeester’s. When Rentmeester saw the Nike photo, he threatened to sue for breach of the limited license governing the use of his colour transparencies. To head off litigation, Nike entered into a new agreement under which the company agreed to pay $15,000 for the right to continue using its photo on posters and billboards in North America for two years. Rentmeester alleged that Nike continued to use the photo well beyond that period.
Then, in 1987, Nike created its Jumpman logo, a solid black silhouette that tracks the outline of Jordan’s figure as it appears in the photo. Nike has since used the logo to sell and market its merchandise, and it has become one of Nike’s most recognisable trademarks. Rentmeester complained, saying that Nike had broken the limitations of the agreement and filed a lawsuit in 2015 after he retired from his photography career. He claimed that both the Nike photo and the Jumpman logo infringe the copyright of his 1984 photo of Jordan.
The Ninth Circuit District Court had in 2018 determined that Nike’s photographer did not copy the details of the pose as expressed in Rentmeester’s photo, but borrowed only the general idea or concept embodied in the photo. Nike’s photo would have to be an exact replica for it to be considered an infringement, noting that the angles of the limbs were different, with the Rentmeester photo suggesting horizontal/forward movement, while in Nike’s version Jordan’s “completely straight limbs combine with the other elements to convey mainly a sense of vertical propulsion”.
The Supreme Court has upheld the 2018 decision and rejected the appeal by Rentmeester, meaning that Nike has won the lawsuit.