Photographer Claims Nike Stole Iconic Michael Jordan Logo

nike photographer lawsuit jumpman documentary jacobus rentmeester micheal jordan
Photographer Jacobus “Co” Rentmeester’s original 1984 image of Michael Jordan (left) and Nike’s Jumpman logo (right)

A photographer is claiming that Nike stole his original image of Michael Jordan to create the famous “Jumpman” logo in an upcoming documentary.

The documentary short Jumpman tells the story of a photographer who created the 1984 LIFE portrait of Michael Jordan that was seemingly copied by Nike and turned into one of the world’s most iconic logos.

Dutch photographer Jacobus “Co” Rentmeester has been in dispute with Nike since the 1980s after the company recreated his image of the basketball star flying through the air as a silhouette to promote the Air Jordan brand of sneakers and other sportswear.

Rentmeester took the photo of Jordan for Life after he was commissioned to shoot a photo essay on the American Olympians for a special issue scheduled for publication for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Rentmeester’s original 1984 photo, shot for LIFE magazine.

According to a report by Complex, the photographer traveled to the University of North Carolina’s campus in Chapel Hill that February to photograph Jordan who had not yet played an NBA game nor signed a deal with Nike.

Rentmeester had instructed Jordan to leap through the air, his legs splayed out in the fashion of a ballet dancer.

The resulting photograph shows the basketball star flying through the air, legs extended wide, and arms running diagonally as the fingers of his right hand are spread out near his knee and the ball is cradled in his left hand well above his head.

A Photographer’s Decades-Long Fight

Complex reports that Life published Rentmeester’s photograph of Jordan across a two-page spread that summer. In August, Nike’s creative director Peter Moore, who was responsible for the look of the Air Jordan line, paid Rentmeester $150 for two transparencies of the photo.

Nike’s 1985 photo of Jordan dunking.

The iconic Nike Jumpman logo based on the company’s 1985 photo of Jordan.

Nike then created its own strikingly similar photograph of Jordan similar image leaping toward an outdoor hoop in nearly the same pose — from which the iconic Jumpman logo was borne.

In Jumpman, Rentmeester recalls the exact moment that he realized Nike had used his image of Jordan as its own. On a trip to Chicago in late 1984, Rentmeester couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw a gigantic Nike billboard that showed Jordan mid-jump, his legs extended and dunking with his left hand — an image that the photographer considered a direct rip-off of his work.

Years later, in January 2015, Rentmeester sued Nike for copyright infringement, accusing the company of ripping off his photograph to create the Jumpman logo for Air Jordan merchandise.

In the lawsuit, Rentmeester would allege that Nike had agreed to pay him $15,000 in March 1985 for limited use of his Jordan image for two years after the photographer constantly badgered the company with threats of litigation.

However, a U.S. federal court dismissed Rentmeester’s lawsuit — claiming that the decision was based on the fact that copyright law protects the expression of ideas rather than the ideas themselves.

It also rejected the photographer’s lawsuit because Jordan’s placement of limbs in Nike’s image was different enough to avoid being an “exact replica.”

The U.S. appeals court upheld the decision in 2018, and the Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal a year later. Rentmeester had been seeking a share of the profits Nike and Jordan Brand have generated since 1987.

‘Closure Will Never Come’

In the documentary short Jumpman, which is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday, Rentmeester tells his side of the story with Nike — describing how he never got credit for his original photograph that inspired the world-famous logo and how and how he wasn’t compensated fairly for the use.

For the photographer, who is nearing 90 years old, his experience with Nike is something that still hurts today. While Rentmeester knows he may not be able to overturn the court’s decision, he wants the public to hear his story in the Jumpman and make their own opinion about the case.

“Closure will never come,” Rentmeester says, according to Footwear News.

“Nike will not apologize, that is not going to happen. But [what] really makes things a lot better is that people can see the movie and make up their own mind.”

Jumpman is directed by Rentmeester’s son-in-law Tom Dey. For the photographer, this documentary project would be considered a success if it inspires a legal response that strengthens copyright laws to better protect artists.

More information about Jumpman can be found on the documentary short’s website. Details about Jumpman screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival can be found here

Image credits: All photos via court documents.