Nike Inc. on Tuesday defeated an appeal by a renowned photographer who accused the sportswear company of ripping off his iconic photo of basketball superstar Michael Jordan and using it to create its silhouetted “Jumpman” logo.
An iconic Nike logo of a leaping Michael Jordan that the company has used to market billions of dollars of merchandise didn’t violate the copyright of an earlier photograph of the basketball star, a federal appeals court ruled.
In a 2-1 decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Jacobus Rentmeester did not show that Nike stole his 1984 photo of Jordan, which had been used in a Life magazine feature on that year’s Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
The Jordan brand now generates $3.1 billion of annual revenue for Nike, which is based in Beaverton, Oregon.
The logo was based on a photograph taken by someone Nike hired. That photo was “obviously inspired” by a 1984 photo by Jacobus Rentmeester. Both show Jordan leaping with his legs extended outward toward a basketball hoop with a ball above his head.
Nike used its photo for the “Jumpman” logo — a silhouetted image of Jordan in the leaping pose in its photograph.
Several months later, Nike commissioned a similarly posed photo, but used Chicago’s skyline as a background, because Jordan was then playing for the National Basketball Association’s Chicago Bulls. Nike used that photo to market Air Jordan sneakers, and in 1987 to create the Jumpman logo.
Circuit Judge Paul Watford wrote that while both photos “capture Michael Jordan in a leaping pose inspired by ballet’s grand jeté,” they were not “substantially similar” because of differences in setting, lighting and other elements.
Watford said this meant the logo was also acceptable and added that Jordan’s pose by itself could not be copyrighted.
“Copyright promotes the progress of science and the useful arts by encouraging others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work,” Watford wrote. “That is all Nike’s photographer did here.”
A lawyer for Rentmeester did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Nike had no immediate comment.
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