On Monday, the United States Supreme Court rejected an appeal from photographer Jacobus Rentmeester, who claimed that the sportswear giant infringed upon a copyrighted image of Michael Jordan to create its iconic Jumpman logo.
The photo in question was taken in 1984 and shot for Life magazine, when Rentmeester was still a student at the University of North Carolina. It shows Jordan with his legs stretched wide, the ball cupped in his left hand as he attempts to dunk on an outdoor basket. The legendary NBA star was pictured in a U.S. Olympic team uniform and Converse sneakers.
The Nike image, on the other hand, featured Jordan in his red and black Chicago Bulls team uniform, set against the backdrop of the city’s skyline.
In the petition, Rentmeester said he conceived, directed and shot a “never-before-used pose — inspired by ballet — to generate Jordan’s appearance of weightlessness and power.” He claimed that Nike’s image “copies virtually every original element expressed in the Rentmeester photo.” The composition was ultimately ranked as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential images of all time.
Also in 1984, Jordan signed a deal with Nike, which debuted an exclusive pair of the original Air Jordan shoes for the then-rookie. (The sneakers were made available to the public late in the year.) It then spun off the design into its now-popular Jordan Brand, which now boasts a remarkable roster of celebrities and athletes as endorsers.
The following year, Nike paid Rentmeester $15,000 to use the Chicago-shot photo on advertisements, posters and billboards in North America for the next two years. It never offered monetary compensation for the rights to its Jumpman logo.
In 2015, Rentmeester sued Nike for copyright violation — more than 30 years after snapping the photo. However, lower courts ruled in the Beaverton, Ore.-based company’s favor, with a district court throwing out the case and an appeals court upholding this decision.
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