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Supreme Court won’t rule on copyright dispute over Michael Jordan photos

Michael Jordan (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Monday it won’t step in to referee a copyright dispute between Nike and a photographer who took a well-known image of basketball great Michael Jordan. That means lower court rulings for the athletic apparel maker will stand.

Photographer Jacobus Rentmeester sued Nike after it used an image he took of Jordan in the 1980s as inspiration for a photograph it commissioned for its own ads. The company’s photo, which was used on posters and billboards, then became the basis for the “Jumpman” logo for Nike’s Air Jordan shoes. Rentmeester sued Beaverton, Oregon-based Nike in 2015 saying both the Nike photo and logo infringed on his copyright image.

Rentmeester’s original photo of Jordan was taken for Life magazine in 1984, while Jordan was a student at the University of North Carolina. It shows Jordan holding a basketball in his left hand and leaping, ballet-like toward a basketball hoop. At the time, Jordan was preparing for the upcoming Summer Olympics, which were being held in Los Angeles. In the photo, Jordan is wearing the U.S. Olympic team uniform.

Both Rentmeester’s photo and Nike’s photo involve a basketball hoop at the right side of the image and were taken from a similar angle. Jordan’s pose is similar in both photos. But in the Nike photo, Jordan is wearing the red and black of the Chicago Bulls, which he joined in 1984, and the Chicago skyline is the background. One other difference: In Rentmeester’s photo, Jordan is wearing Converse.

Rentmeester cried foul, argued that the differences between his photo and Nike’s were “minor,” and said that nearly every original element in his photo also appeared in Nike’s. Lower courts ruled for Nike.

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