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Rentmeester v. Nike, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

February 27, 2018

Jacobus Rentmeester, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Nike, Inc., an Oregon corporation, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued and Submitted July 11, 2017 Portland, Oregon

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Oregon Michael W. Mosman, Chief District Judge, Presiding D.C. No. 3:15-cv-00113-MO

          Dean M. Harvey (argued), Katherine C. Lubin, and Eric B. Fastiff, Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP, San Francisco, California; Cody Hoesly, Larkins Vacura LLP, Portland, Oregon; for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Dale Cendali (argued), Johanna Schmitt, and P. Daniel Bond, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, New York, New York; Jon Stride, Tonkon Torp LLP, Portland, Oregon; for Defendant-Appellee.

          Before: Marsha S. Berzon, Paul J. Watford, and John B. Owens, Circuit Judges.

         SUMMARY [*]


         The panel affirmed the district court's dismissal of a copyright infringement action brought by photographer Jacobus Rentmeester against Nike, Inc.

         Rentmeester alleged that Nike infringed his copyright in a photograph of Michael Jordan when it commissioned its own photograph of Jordan and then used that photo to create its "Jumpman" logo.

         The panel held that Rentmeester plausibly alleged the first element of his copyright claim-that he owned a valid copyright in his photo. He also plausibly alleged the "copying" component of the second element because Nike's access to Rentmeester's photo, combined with the obvious conceptual similarities between the two photos, was sufficient to create a presumption that the Nike photo was the product of copying rather than independent creation.

         Rentmeester did not, however, plausibly allege that Nike copied enough of the protected expression from his photo to establish unlawful appropriation. The panel held that Rentmeester could not copyright the pose in the photograph, and he was entitled to protection only for the way the pose was expressed, including the camera angle, timing, and shutter speed he chose. The panel explained that a photographer's copyright is limited to the particular selection and arrangement of the elements expressed in the copyrighted image. The panel held that Rentmeester's photo was entitled to broad rather than thin protection because the range of creative choices open to him in producing the photo was exceptionally broad. Nonetheless, Rentmeester did not plausibly allege that his photo and the Nike photo were substantially similar under the extrinsic test because there were differences in selection and arrangement of elements, as reflected in the photos' objective details. The panel concluded that, therefore, the Jumpman logo also was not substantially similar to Rentmeester's photo.

         Concurring in part and dissenting in part, Judge Owens agreed with most of the majority's analysis, and with its holding that Rentmeester could not prevail on his Jumpman logo copyright infringement claim. Judge Owens disagreed with the majority's conclusion as to the Nike photo on the basis that questions of substantial similarity are inherently factual and should not have been resolved at the dismissal stage.


          WATFORD, Circuit Judge

         This is a copyright infringement action brought by the renowned photographer Jacobus Rentmeester against Nike, Inc. The case involves a famous photograph Rentmeester took in 1984 of Michael Jordan, who at the time was a student at the University of North Carolina. The photo originally appeared in Life magazine as part of a photo essay featuring American athletes who would soon be competing in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games. We are asked to decide whether Nike infringed Rentmeester's copyright when it commissioned its own photograph of Jordan and then used that photo to create one of its most iconic trademarks.


         The allegations in Rentmeester's complaint, which we accept as true at this stage of the proceedings, establish the following. Rentmeester's photograph of Jordan, reproduced in the Appendix, is highly original. It depicts Jordan leaping toward a basketball hoop with a basketball raised above his head in his left hand, as though he is attempting to dunk the ball. The setting for the photo is not a basketball court, as one would expect in a shot of this sort. Instead, Rentmeester chose to take the photo on an isolated grassy knoll on the University of North Carolina campus. He brought in a basketball hoop and backboard mounted on a tall pole, which he planted in the ground to position the hoop exactly where he wanted. Whether due to the height of the pole or its placement within the image, the basketball hoop appears to tower above Jordan, beyond his reach.

          Rentmeester instructed Jordan on the precise pose he wanted Jordan to assume. It was an unusual pose for a basketball player to adopt, one inspired by ballet's grand jeté, in which a dancer leaps with legs extended, one foot forward and the other back. Rentmeester positioned the camera below Jordan and snapped the photo at the peak of his jump so that the viewer looks up at Jordan's soaring figure silhouetted against a cloudless blue sky. Rentmeester used powerful strobe lights and a fast shutter speed to capture a sharp image of Jordan contrasted against the sky, even though the sun is shining directly into the camera lens from the lower right-hand corner of the shot.

         Not long after Rentmeester's photograph appeared in Life magazine, Nike contacted him and asked to borrow color transparencies of the photo. Rentmeester provided Nike with two color transparencies for $150 under a limited license authorizing Nike to use the transparencies "for slide presentation only." It is unclear from the complaint what kind of slide presentation Nike may have been preparing, but the company was then beginning its lucrative partnership with Jordan by promoting the Air Jordan brand of athletic shoes.

         In late 1984 or early 1985, Nike hired a photographer to produce its own photograph of Jordan, one obviously inspired by Rentmeester's. In the Nike photo, Jordan is again shown leaping toward a basketball hoop with a basketball held in his left hand above his head, as though he is about to dunk the ball. See Appendix. The photo was taken outdoors and from a similar angle as in Rentmeester's photo, so that the viewer looks up at Jordan's figure silhouetted against the sky. In the Nike photo, though, it is the city of Chicago's skyline that appears in the background, a nod to the fact that by then Jordan was playing professionally for the Chicago Bulls. Jordan wears apparel reflecting the colors of his new team, and he is of course wearing a pair of Nike shoes. Nike used this photo on posters and billboards as part of its marketing campaign for the new Air Jordan brand.

         When Rentmeester saw the Nike photo, he threatened to sue Nike for breach of the limited license governing use of his color transparencies. To head off litigation, Nike entered into a new agreement with Rentmeester in March 1985, under which the company agreed to pay $15, 000 for the right to continue using the Nike photo on posters and billboards in North America for a period of two years. Rentmeester alleges that Nike continued to use the photo well beyond that period.

         In 1987, Nike created its iconic "Jumpman" logo, a solid black silhouette that tracks the outline of Jordan's figure as it appears in the Nike photo. See Appendix. Over the past three decades, Nike has used the Jumpman logo in connection with the sale and marketing of billions of dollars of merchandise. It has become one of Nike's most recognizable trademarks.

         Rentmeester filed this action in January 2015. He alleges that both the Nike photo and the Jumpman logo infringe the copyright in his 1984 photo of Jordan. His complaint asserts claims for direct, vicarious, and contributory infringement, as well as a claim for violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 1202. Rentmeester seeks damages only for acts of infringement occurring within the Copyright Act's three-year limitations period (January 2012 to the present). Doing so avoids the defense of laches that would otherwise arise from his 30-year delay in bringing suit. See Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 134 S.Ct. 1962, 1970 (2014).

         The district court granted Nike's motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The court dismissed Rentmeester's claims with prejudice after concluding that neither the Nike photo nor the Jumpman logo infringe Rentmeester's copyright as a matter of law. We review that legal determination de novo.


         To state a claim for copyright infringement, Rentmeester must plausibly allege two things: (1) that he owns a valid copyright in his photograph of Jordan, and (2) that Nike copied protected aspects of the photo's expression. See Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service ...

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