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COURTESY OF NIKE INC. - Nike's 'Jumpman' image has been used since the mid-1980s on all kinds of athletic apparel. A photographer who took the original 1984 photo of Michael Jordan leaping into the air says Nike infringed on his copyright for the image.Nike’s signature image — Michael Jordan’s silhouetted “Jumpman” leaping toward a dunk — is under fire in federal court for copyright infringement.


Jacobus Rentmeester, a Life Magazine photographer who took the original photo of Jordan in 1984 flying toward a basketball hoop on the University of North Carolina campus, is suing the Washington County athletic apparel giant in U.S. District Court for what he says is misuse of the copyright for the widely recognized image.

Rentmeester says Nike Inc. and others have infringed on his copyright, using the image of Jordan well beyond an agreement reached 30 years ago. He is seeking unspecified financial damages and attorneys’ fees based on “any profits attributable to infringement” of the copyright, according to his 25-page lawsuit filed Thursday, Jan. 22.

Nike representatives have not yet commented on the lawsuit or its merits.

No court date has been set for the lawsuit. Rentmeester’s lawsuit was filed by attorney Cody Hoesly of Portland’s Larkins Vacura LLP firm. Attorneys with the San Francisco firm of Lieff Cabraser Heimann and Bernstein LLP also represent Rentmeester.

COURTESY OF JACOBUS RENTMEESTER - Jacobus Rentmeester's original 1984 photo of UNC basketball star Michael Jordan (wearing Converse basketball shoes) is at the center of a copyright infringement lawsuit filed Jan. 22 in U.S. District Court against athletic apparel giant Nike Inc.

A 'grand jete'

Nike has used the Jumpman image for nearly 30 years on clothing, shoes, basketballs and other items sold around the world.

According to the lawsuit, Rentmeester took the photo as part of a 1984 Life Magazine issue that included photos of athletes preparing for the summer Olympics. The shot of Jordan leaping was actually shot on a UNC campus hillside with a temporary basketball hoop installed just for the photo.

Rentmeester and two assistants spent a half hour with Jordan, choreographing the leaping motion using a ballet move and having Jordan hold the ball in his left hand (he's right-handed), which took practice and repeated leaps to get the right shot. Rentmeester said Jordan was "enthusiastic and a quick study."

Rentmeester took photos of Jordan using a Hasselblad camera and special lighting. Jordan was at the peak of a “grand jete,” according to the lawsuit, in the photo that Life Magazine published.

Ironically, the man who became Nike's premier endorser was wearing Converse basketball shoes in the 1984 photo.

Rentmeester was a Life Magazine staff photographer from 1966 to 1972, and then worked on contract for the magazine from 1972 until 2000. He retained the copyright on all his work, according to lawsuit. On Dec. 18, 2014, Rentmeester registered the Jordan photo with the U.S. Copyright Office. Even though the photo was copyrighted immediately after it was published, a copyright owner (Rentmeester) can only sue for infringement after the copyright has been registered.

Rentmeester had a talent for photographing athletes, benefiting from his experience competing in the 1960 Rome Olympics as an oarsman for The Netherlands.

A two-year limit

COURTESY OF JACOBUS RENTMEESTER - Nike's photo of Michael Jordan eventually became the sports apparel giant's Jumpman logo.Rentmeester’s attorneys claimed in the lawsuit that shortly after the photo was published, Nike was trying to woo Jordan to the brand and paid the photographer $150 for use of two 35mm transparencies of the photos, which originally were just to be part of company presentations.

Attorneys said Nike used the transparencies to recreate and copy the photo, including an image of Jordan leaping grand jete-style with the Chicago skyline in the background, ball in his left hand and his right hand extended. It was that photo that became Nike's Jumpman image used on its Air Jordan shoes and other items sold as part of the product line created in the late 1980s.

Rentmeester's lawsuit claimed that the Nike copies included subtle changes that "were neither original nor creative." The image was substantially copied from his original photo, according to the lawsuit.

The Air Jordan III athletic shoe, the first Air Jordan shoe with the Jumpman logo, was released in 1987. Nike's sales soared, according to the lawsuit, largely because of the Air Jordan III shoes.

"Since 1987, Nike continuously reproduced the Jumpman logo on an enormous scale," according to the lawsuit. "Without permission from Mr. Rentmeester, Nike reproduced the Jumpman logo in advertisements, marketing materials, product packaging and as the central visual element of a wide variety of Nike products."

A new Air Jordan product, Jordan Flight Runner 2, launches in February and will be sold for about $120 a pair. The shoes feature the Jumpman logo on their back. Other Jordan shoes include the logo prominently on the side or on the sole.

Rentmeester claims he contacted Nike about the reproductions and the company “only responded to his repeated requests when Mr. Rentmeester threatened litigation.”

After that, the lawsuit claims, Nike paid Rentmeester $15,000 for a limited license to use the image for two years. His lawsuit claims Nike “willfully exceeded the scope of the 1985 Jordan Photo Invoice by using the Nike Copy on billboards, posters and other promotional materials well beyond the two-year limit.”

"Based in part on the success of the infringing Jumpman logo, Nike has become one of the largest shoe and sports apparel providers in the world," according to the lawsuit.

Rentmeester’s lawsuit could be helped in part by a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a similar copyright case involving a 1963 screenplay that eventually became the 1980 movie “Raging Bull.” Pamela Patrella, the daughter of the screenplay writer, sued MGM for copyright infringement in 2009, more than 20 years after the movie was produced. The Supreme Court ruled in Patrella’s favor, but said she could only collect damages for the past three years, not for the entire two decades that the movie had made money.

In Rentmeester’s case, that could equate to several million dollars because of Nike’s global sales using the Jumpman logo.

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