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Court: Photographer Can't Copyright Michael Jordan's 'Jumpman' Pose

By William Vogeler, Esq. on March 01, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

For all his fame, Michael Jordan is best known to basketball fans for his signature flight to the hoop.

"I Believe I Can Fly," the song, comes in a close second. But even that is based on his gravity-defying dunks that earned him the title of "His Airness."

"The Jumpman" also earned him a whole lot of money when Nike used the pose to create a logo for Air Jordan basketball shoes. A photographer who captured Jordan in the same pose wanted some of that, but he's not getting any in Rentmeester v. Nike, Inc.

In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the copyright claim of Jacobus Rentmeester. The photographer alleged that Nike misappropriated his photo of Jordan, which appeared in Life magazine in 1984.

His photo depicts Jordan, who was a student at the University of North Carolina then, flying in his signature pose towards a basketball hoop on a grassy hill. When Jordan went to play for the Chicago Bulls, Nike created a similar image with the city as the background.

Judge Paul Watford wrote that the poses were similar, but the setting, lighting and other elements were not. And while the photos could be copyrighted, the pose could not.

"Copyright promotes the progress of science and the useful arts by encouraging others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work," Watford wrote. "That is all Nike's photographer did here."

A Jury Question

Judge John Owens dissented, saying a jury should have decided whether the works were substantially similar.

"Whether the Nike photo is substantially similar is not an uncontested breakaway layup," he wrote.

Reuters reported that the Jordan brand generates about $3.1 billion in revenue for Nike. Jordan, now a businessman and owner of the NBA's Charlotte Hornets, is worth about $1.65 billion.

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