The eponymous Nike “Jumpman” logo is arguably even more famous and revered than the omnipresent swoosh. The image adorned Michael Jordan, basketball royalty and one of the richest athletes – from royalties – to ever play any game. Of course, Nike also made untold billions thanks to the “Jordan-Jumpman” brand, a fact that has them back in court defending every nickel of those millions from an artist who says Nike stole his work.
Jacobus Rentmeester sued Nike in federal court claiming copyright infringement. His suit demands profits associated with some $3.2 billion in retail sales (from 2014 alone), but Rentmeester did not stop there. The aggrieved photographer also wants Nike to halt current sales of any products featuring the Jordan brand.
At the heart of the complaint is a photo session Rentmeester says he shot while Jordan was warming up for the 1984 Olympics. Life Magazine had commissioned the work, but Rentmeester says the rights to the images remained his own. After the images had been published, reports indicated that Nike’s Jordan brand designer, Peter Moore, paid less than two hundred bucks for “temporary use of the photo slides.”
According to the suit, Rentmeester argues Nike used his photo to recreate the shot with Jordan wearing his NBA Chicago Bulls gear. The Chicago skyline was added to the shots Nike used, but Rentmeester claims the work is still fundamentally his own. According to media reports related to the suit, the claim states: “Mr. Rentmeester created the pose, inspired by a ballet technique known as a grand jete, a long horizontal jump…”
Subsequent to that initial use, Nike used the image additional times, how many depends on who you ask, as does the amount and reasons why Rentmeester was compensated on those occasions.
This case is an example of how a legal dispute can – and often will – spill over into the court of public opinion. While the case itself will be decided in the court system, the culpability and credibility of each party will have long since been decided by the fans watching this case.
Plus, public opinion will not be limited to perspectives on Nike and the photographer. Opinion and perspective will spill over onto any other athlete who is paid to sport the Jordan brand. This presents a multi-faceted branding and PR scenario requiring both a winning narrative in court and a strong positive message to offer to the court of public opinion.