It wasn’t the loudest legal news of the day for Nike, but one development surrounding a logo could be just as big for the sportswear behemoth.
The Supreme Court announced Monday that would not hear the case of a copyright dispute surrounding Nike’s iconic Air Jordan logo, according to the Associated Press. Instead, the lower court rulings in favor of Nike will stand.
The decision will effectively end Nike’s legal battle with a photographer who claimed to take a photo that Nike copied when it created the Air Jordan logo that every sneakerhead in the world sees when they go to sleep.
Did Nike really steal its Air Jordan logo?
While the courts have made their decision, it’s still worth taking a look at what made the photographer, Jacobus Rentmeester, think that Nike unfairly ripped him off.
There seems to be little debate that a photo from Rentmeester was the inspiration for the Air Jordan logo. In 1984, the year Michael Jordan left the University of North Carolina for the NBA, Rentmeester snapped a photo for Life Magazine that looked impossible and natural for the superstar all at the same time.
The photo has since been ranked by Time as one of the 100 most influential images of all time, described as “may be the most famous silhouette ever photographed.”
Nike seemed to quite like the photo, as it recreated the image with some minor adjustments, particularly its background, once it signed Jordan to an endorsement deal. You can see the two photos in the tweet below.
Here are the photos, Rentmeester left, Nike Right.
Basically, courts (not the SC, which doesn't explain cert denials) said pose/angle are protect-able, but since idea of Jordan dunking are not, would have had to be "virtually identical." Cited slight dif in limb angles, etc. pic.twitter.com/q0Vu4t5tDG
— Kyle Jahner (@kylejahner) March 25, 2019
Per Jahner, a reporter for Bloomberg Law, Rentmeester allowed Nike to use his photo “for slide presentation only,” but then Nike went ahead and crafted one of the biggest brands in all of sports using its own image. Rentmeester waited a while to sue — you can imagine a reputation for litigation might hurt a photography career — and then lost in court.
Why Nike won its Air Jordan logo case and what it means
The court’s reasoning, per Jahner:
Rentmeester waited until the end of his commercial photography career before suing Nike in 2015 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. The court dismissed the case, finding the two images were not “substantially similar.” The opinion stripped nonprotectable elements of Rentmeester’s image and elements of Nike’s that didn’t match it.
That essentially left Jordan’s pose, positioning, and angle. The district court said that expression of the NBA star’s grand jeté could be protected, but that Nike’s version of it would’ve had to be “virtually identical.” The judge cited slightly different angles of limbs to conclude that it was not.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in a 2-1 vote found Rentmeester’s photo artistic enough to merit “the broadest protection a photograph can receive.” But its decision laid out a number of differences Nike introduced—including a background of the Chicago skyline and dusk sky colors, and slight differences in the pose—to clear Nike.
Rentmeester’s last chance for victory was for the Supreme Court to take his case, but that ship has now sailed. That’s a big win for Nike, as it likely would have owed Rentmeester damages from infringement acts dating back to 2012 due to the statute of limitations, per Jahner.
Taking a larger view, the decision could also be a loss for photographers everywhere, as you now apparently need to only change a few aspects of a photo to be legally protected as far as copyright goes.
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