Copyright Suit Against Nike Dismissed

How similar do two works have to be in order for a court to find copyright infringement?

Popular shoe and apparel manufacturer Nike was recently the target of a copyright suit involving it’s famous Jordan brand.  Jumpman, as the logo is referred to, is a silhouette image of basketball star Michael Jordan, jumping to dunk the ball with his left hand.  A photographer recently claimed that this image was taken from a photograph he shot in 1984 and that Nike had been using it for years without permission.

Jacobus Rentmeester filed suit for copyright infringement in federal court in Oregon claiming that the Jumpman logo was derived from the photo he took for LIFE Magazine in the 1980’s.  In 1985, Nike contracted with Rentmeester to use the image for marketing purposes for a 2 year time period.  The Jumpman logo was subsequently created in 1987 and Rentmeester alleged that Nike had been benefitting from the logo derived from his work for almost 30 years.  He claimed that he “guided” Jordan into this pose and that he was therefore entitled to copyright protection.

Nike argued that they took a photo of Jordan in the same pose and used that photo to create the logo.  They also argued that Rentmeester does not have a claim to all images of Jordan in that position and should only be afforded copyright protection in relation to the specific photo he took.  

While the court did find that the images were similar to one another, they eventually sided with Nike.  The court explained that copyright protections vary on a case-to-case basis, and that depending upon the specific facts they can range from broad to narrow.  When there is a wide range of expression, works are entitled to broad protections.  When there is a narrow range of expression, the copyright protections are thin and images must be extremely similar in order to find copyright infringement.  In this case, there was a narrow range of expression and therefore thin protections existed.  The images were not similar enough for them to find copyright infringement.

Thomas M. Lancia handles all types of cases relating to copyright infringement. If you are involved in a copyright infringement issue in the New York City area, contact his office by calling (212) 964-3157 for a consultation today.