Copyrights provide protection to various original works and give the copyright owner the exclusive right to sell, publish, or reproduce the work. Photographer Jacobus Rentmeester felt that this exclusive right had been violated by Nike.
Rentmeester claimed in a lawsuit against Nike that it had infringed on his copyright by copying his photo of Michael Jordan to create Nike’s “Jumpman” logo. Unfortunately for Rentmeester, the Ninth Circuit disagreed, holding that while Rentmeester could claim a copyright to his creative choices for his photo, he couldn’t claim a copyright to the jump pose.
Comparing the Photograph to the Logo
The photo at the heart of the lawsuit was one Renmeester took of Michael Jordan for a Life magazine feature on the Summer Olympics of 1984. The photo is of Michael Jordan midair going toward a basketball hoop in a grassy knoll. Renmeester alleged that Nike used this photo to create its “Jumpman” logo.
Why Isn’t It Copyright Infringement?
Copyrights provide protection for “original works of authorship” which are fixed in a tangible form. Tangible form includes a story written down on paper or a song recorded on a tape. Categories of work that can be copyrighted include (but are not limited to): musical works, literary works, movies, and sound recordings. While it would seem that Rentmeester’s photograph falls into the definition of copyrightable work, the Ninth Circuit panel concluded that even though Nike may have copied the photo, a person “cannot copyright the pose itself and thereby prevent others from photographing a person in the same pose.”