Jacobus Rentmeester of New York City filed the lawsuit against Oregon-based Nike Inc. on Thursday in federal court in Portland, Oregon. He's seeking unspecified monetary damages, profits generated from the image, and an injunction preventing further copyright infringement.
Rentmeester staged and shot the photo for Life magazine as part of a special section published for the 1984 Summer Olympics. As a freelancer, he retained rights to the copyright. Nike later paid him $150 for temporary use of two transparencies of the photo.
According to the complaint, Nike then produced a nearly identical photograph of Jordan and reproduced it on billboards, and when Rentmeester threatened litigation, the Oregon company paid him $15,000 for a limited license to use the image for two years.
The complaint says Nike continued to reproduce the photo after that period and used it to create the distinctive "Jumpman" logo, a silhouette of the leaping Jordan inspired by the photograph. The company went on to create the Jordan Brand division, which markets Michael Jordan products using the photo and the logo.
The lawsuit says Nike has earned millions as a result of these marketing campaigns.
Nike spokesman Greg Rossiter said the company is not commenting on the lawsuit.
It's unclear why Rentmeester waited nearly three decades to file a claim. He registered the Jordan photo with the U.S. Copyright Office in December 2014.
Neither the photographer nor his lawyer returned calls for comment.
Federal copyright law allows people to bring copyright claims within three years of an infringing act. But in May 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court in a similar copyright case ruled that delay in filing a copyright claim isn't a bar to seeking damages as long as the copyright infringement continues.
That case, Petrella v. MGM, concerns the screenplay to the 1980 movie "Raging Bull," co-written and sold by Frank Petrella, whose daughter sued MGM in 2009 seeking royalties from continuing commercial use of the film. Petrella's claim fell within the three years, the court ruled, because the studio continued to release the film on DVD and other formats for years and every new release essentially reset the clock for copyright purposes.