Opinion: Lawsuit Over Jordan Logo Is A Reach

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Nike is facing a lawsuit brought forth by a photographer claiming to own rights to the iconic Jordan “Jumpman” logo, but is it with merit?

Photographer Jacobus Rentmeester filed a lawsuit in federal courts in Portland, OR on Thursday claiming Nike has violated copyright laws by using his photo of Michael Jordan for the iconic Jordan “Jumpman” logo.  The New York based photographer is seeking unspecified monetary damages from Nike.

RELATED: Nike Sued By Photographer For Jordan Jumpman Logo

Rentmeester shot a photo of Michael Jordan for LIFE Magazine in preparations for the 1984 Olympic Games shown below.

Michael Jordan in LIFE Magazine (1984) shot by Jacobus Rentmeester
Michael Jordan in LIFE Magazine (1984) shot by Jacobus Rentmeester

The lawsuit says Nike paid Rentmeester $150 in August of 1984 for temporary use of two 35mm transparencies of Jordan he shot for LIFE, later returning the images.

Invoice for use of 35mm slides by Nike
Invoice for use of 35mm slides by Nike

By February of 1985 however, the lawsuit says, Nike shot a photograph of Michael Jordan doing the iconic “Jumpman” pose in a scene soaring above the Chicago skyline that recreated key elements of the image that Rentmeester shot in 1984.

Michael Jordan doing Jumpman photographed during Nike photoshoot
Michael Jordan doing Jumpman photographed during Nike photoshoot

Rentmeester contacted Nike upon learning of the image and according to the filed lawsuit, “Nike initially refused to speak with Mr. Renmeester regarding the issue and only responded to his repeated requests when Mr. Rentmeester threatened litigation.”

The lawsuit acknowledges that Nike paid Rentmeester $15,000 in March of 1985 for a limited license for use of the image for two years, but the claim is that Nike breeched the agreement by using the image in marketing materials and by creating the Jumpman logo from a silhouette of Michael Jordan from the photoshoot.

Michael Jordan photo invoice for $15,000 dated March 27, 1985
Michael Jordan photo invoice for $15,000 dated March 27, 1985

The Jordan logo first appeared on the Air Jordan III released in 1988 and has appeared on every Jordan product ever since.  In 1997, Michael Jordan and Nike introduced Brand Jordan that was a new franchise and separate division within Nike.  Since its inception, the official logo of this brand has been the iconic Jordan “Jumpman” logo.

Leading up to the 30th anniversary of the Jordan line’s milestone 30th anniversary, Nice Kicks published an article titled History Of The Jordan Jumpman Logo detailing the complete history of the Jordan Jumpman logo on October 1, 2014.  In this piece, Nice Kicks recognized the LIFE magazine photograph as the first documented time that Jordan was shot doing the pose with his legs spread and arm up, but notes that it was not until 1985 in the Nike photoshoot that Michael Jordan was photographed doing the pose that would eventually be used to create the Jumpman logo.

In the lawsuit, Rentmeester is said to maintain that he is “the continuous and exclusive owner of the copyright” or the photo from the 1984 photoshoot, but the photo wasn’t registered with the United States Copyright Office until December 18, 2014 – less than three months after we wrote our article about the iconic logo.

The timing of it all might appear that this is a simple case of one individual attempting to make a claim to get paid royalties for the logo associated with over $3.2 Billion in sales last year.  For starters, the copyright filing was submitted only after our article being the first media article tying the two photographs into relationship with one another.  Also to consider, at what point in the past three decades that Nike and Jordan Brand were allegedly “misusing” his work did Rentmeester actually bring about a lawsuit.

Nice Kicks is mentioned and I personally am quoted in the lawsuit.

Nice Kicks, Matt Halfhill mentioned in lawsuit
Nice Kicks, Matt Halfhill mentioned in lawsuit

While from a bird’s eye view it may appear to be a classic case of copyright trolling, there is some pretty damaging evidence against Nike brought about in the lawsuit filed last week.

Rentmeester photographed Michael Jordan as part of a special section LIFE magazine published for the 1984 Summer Olympics as part of a 22 page “American Excellence” photo essay piece in the magazine.

In the suit, Rentmeester describes how he conceptualized the pose of Michael Jordan doing what is now known in popular culture as doing the “Jumpman pose.”  Inspired by a ballet move called the “grand jeté,” Jordan would perform out of his norm in a number of ways.  For starters, the pose calls for the subject to jump vertically and spread their legs outward at the apex of the leap – something that is far from a standard “basketball move.”  Secondly, the pose calls for the subject to hold the ball in their left hand – Michael Jordan is right-handed.

Further details pulled straight from the lawsuit are listed below:

Over approximately one half hour, Mr. Jordan practiced leaping according to Mr. Rentmeester’s instructions. The pose differed substantially from Mr. Jordan’s natural jumps, during gameplay or otherwise (for instance, Mr. Jordan typically held the basketball with his right hand), and required practice and repeated attempts. Mr. Jordan was enthusiastic and a quick study.

Mr. Rentmeester photographed Jordan at the apex of his “grand jeté” leaps, using a Hasselblad camera with 6x6cm film, with powerful strobe lights that required specialty outdoor electricity generators to power. The large strobe lights allowed Mr. Rentmeester to photograph Mr. Jordan with the sun shining directly into the lens, creating a sharp and compelling silhouette of Mr. Jordan against a contrasting clear sky.

Also included in the suit is a copy of the invoice for $150 Renmeester submitted to Nike addressed to Peter Moore.  At the time, Peter Moore was a Creative Director at Nike and is creditted with designing the Air Jordan 1.  Peter Moore later moved on to be a leading charge in Adidas’ refocussed and restrategized branding efforts in the US and eventually became the President of Adidas America.

Nike Air Jordan with Jumpman Hangtag from 1985
Nike Air Jordan with Jumpman Hangtag from 1985

While, statistically speaking, this will likely be settled in some form or another outside of the courtroom, Peter Moore’s direct involvement, communication, and transactions with Rentmeester will likely be the most damaging for Nike’s side of the argument.  It is pretty evident that someone at Nike saw the photo of Jordan doing the pose in LIFE magazine and wanted to recreate it for their own use.

The situation is terribly complicated, but what the courts and attorneys for both sides will need to determine is whether or not a “concept” of a pose is something that one can copyright.  To further complicate the matter of damages if a decision is main in favor of the plaintiff, the US Supreme Court has recently ruled in what some legal experts are calling “legislation from the bench” extending the statute of limitations on damages from three years to an infinite amount of time depending on the circumstances.

In the end, where is a line drawn?

Was the initial concept of Michael Jordan leaping vertically and spreading his legs out something introduced by Rentmeester, it appears so, but does that mean that he can own claim to anything associated with such move over the rest of Michael Jordan’s playing and business career?  What about fellow photographers who photographed players such as Shawn Kemp and Blake Griffin doing the Jumpman pose?  Should Rentmeester be entitled to profits from that since the players were doing the pose because MJ did it?

Shawn Kemp does "Jumpman" pose in 1996 NBA All-Star Game
Shawn Kemp does “Jumpman” pose in 1996 NBA All-Star Game

Should the person who gave Michael Jordan his first basketball or teacher who encouraged him to pick up the game be entitled to it too?  There is no end in sight on this slippery slope.

Had Nike created the Jordan logo from a silhouette of Rentmeester’s photo, I could see there being a case in his favor, but that isn’t the situation.  The Jordan Jumpman logo was a silhouette from a photo taken by Nike at a Nike photoshoot.

If Jacobus Rentmeester was the rightful and legal owner over such an iconic and popular logo, why is it only now that a claim is being made?

The nature in which this case has been brought about as the Air Jordan line celebrates 30 years of continued success and dominance should not be overshadowed in any way, shape, or form by a lawsuit as much of a reach as this one.

Silhouette of Michael Jordan from 1984 LIFE magazine photo vs. 1985 Nike photo
Silhouette of Michael Jordan from 1984 LIFE magazine photo vs. 1985 Nike photo

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