The life of the most successful sneaker franchise of all time is at risk, as a photographer is accusing Nike of using his work to make its famous "Jumpman" logo of Michael Jordan's silhouette.
Jacobus Rentmeester is suing Nike in federal court in Oregon for copyright infringement. Not only is he asking for profits associated with the Jordan brand, which generated $3.2 billion in retail sales in 2014, but he also is seeking to halt current sales and plans for the brand's future.
Rentmeester says he took a picture of Jordan in his Olympic warm-ups in 1984 for an issue of Life Magazine. After it was published, Nike's Peter Moore, who designed the first Air Jordans, paid $150 for temporary use of Rentmeester's slides. Rentmeester says Nike used his photo to recreate the shot with Jordan in Bulls gear with the Chicago skyline in the background, but that it was essentially still his work.
"Mr. Rentmeester created the pose, inspired by a ballet technique known as a 'grand jete,' a long horizontal jump during which a dancer performs splits in mid-air," the lawsuit says. "The pose, while conceived to make it appear that Mr. Jordan was in the process of a dunk, was not reflective of Mr. Jordan's natural jump or dunking style."
The suit claims Rentmeester directed Jordan, who practiced the desired leap, an unnatural move for the star because he typically held the ball with his right hand. Jordan, the suit claims, backed up the idea that it was indeed a ballet move in a 1997 interview with Hoop Magazine.
Rentmeester said that in March 1985 -- after threatening to sue the shoe and apparel brand -- he granted Nike use of the Jordan logo for two years on billboards and posters in North America, for which he was paid $15,000. The Jumpman image also was featured as a tag on the Air Jordan I shoes, which sold for $65 a pair.
The Jumpman logo first appeared on the Air Jordan with the third version in 1987, the first shoe conceived by legendary designer Tinker Hatfield. The company has since trademarked various versions of the logo -- in 1989, '92 and '98.
For his part, Rentmeester hasn't addressed the alleged infringement expeditiously, given that it's almost 28 years after that two-year contract would have expired.
In the suit, Rentmeester claims it was he, not Life Magazine, who remained the owner of the picture, but he noted that the photo was registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for the first time just last month.
Nike spokesman Greg Rossiter told The Associated Press that the company is not commenting on the lawsuit.
Federal copyright law allows people to bring copyright claims within three years of an infringing act. But in May 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court in a similar copyright case ruled that delay in filing a copyright claim isn't a bar to seeking damages as long as the copyright infringement continues.
That case, Petrella v. MGM, concerns the screenplay to the 1980 movie "Raging Bull,'' co-written and sold by Frank Petrella, whose daughter sued MGM in 2009 seeking royalties from continuing commercial use of the film. Petrella's claim fell within the three years, the court ruled, because the studio continued to release the film on DVD and other formats for years and every new release essentially reset the clock for copyright purposes.
In 1984, Nike signed Jordan to a five-year deal worth a total of $2.5 million, a record for a shoe deal at the time. In order to protect the company, Nike included a clause that stated if he didn't accomplish one of three things -- win rookie of the year, become an All-Star or average 20 points per game -- in his first three years, it could end the deal two years early. Nike sold $100 million worth of the Air Jordan Is in the first year of the deal.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.