Kawhi Leonard Loses Copyright Lawsuit Against Nike

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Kawhi Leonard is closely identified with the Klaw logo. When you see the logo, you think of it. But as the Los Angeles Clippers star learned on Wednesday, the Leonard logo doesn’t make him its owner. According to a new federal judge’s decision, the logo belongs to Nike.

Last summer, Leonard and Nike filed a duel lawsuit over ownership of the logo. Crossing has detailed histories on both cases.

The logo, of course, emphasizes Leonard’s distinct large hands, the same hands that were measured at 11.5 inches in diameter and who made the four-time All Star one of the best defensive players in the NBA. The logo also incorporates Leonard’s initials “KL” and his jersey number, 2. Leonard insists he invented the logo while playing for San Diego State from 2009-2011. as a rookie on the San Antonio Spurs during the 2011-12 season, Leonard recalls sharing a design for the logo with Nike, with whom he signed an endorsement deal.

Over the next few years, Nike built on the design to develop related properties, including variations of the logo. However, Leonard insists he retained the final say on the logo’s appearance. As Leonard gradually transformed into a highly marketable star during the 2010s, Nike sold various apparel and footwear emblazoned with the Klaw logo. Leonard and Nike parted ways in 2018, with Leonard signing an endorsement deal with New Balance. Leonard has sought a statement from the court that he is the sole author of the logo and that Nike engaged in fraud by registering what it considers “its” logo with the US Copyright Office in Washington, DC.

Nike, meanwhile, strongly disputed Leonard’s account of the facts and sued him for copyright infringement, breach of contract and fraud. Nike acknowledges that Leonard shared a sketch of a design in 2011, but maintains that his logo is sufficiently different and superior to the one Leonard envisioned. Nike also points out that Leonard admitted that Nike was instrumental in turning his concept into a distinct, marketable property. In 2014, Leonard was interviewed for the nice kicks story called “The Oral History of Kawhi Leonard’s “Klaw” Logo.” The story quotes him as follows:

I had the idea to incorporate my initials in this logo. I wrote the draft, I sent it and they (Jordan Brand) made it perfect. I give all the credit to the Jordan Brand team because I’m not an artist at all. They refined it and made it better than I thought it would be, and I’m extremely happy with the final version.

With logos, the visual test is important. Here are two Klaw logos:

The two logos are clearly similar in some ways. Both share the one hand design, feature a similar one hand position, and both reference the letters “KL” and the number “2”. These dots help Leonard claim that Nike’s logo is simply derived from its design. Yet, the logos are not alike for several reasons, including finger size and angle, general styles, and the way the two logos represent “KL” and “2”. These differences reinforce Nike’s claim that the logos are significantly different.

Both lawsuits were initially heard in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California but, at Nike’s request last October, the litigation was transferred to the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman presided over the case in Oregon. On Wednesday, he dismissed Leonard’s claims with prejudice (i.e. on the merits) and granted a motion confirming Nike’s ownership of the design.

The decision, which is a victory for Nike lawyers from law firms DLA Piper and Stoel Rives, was made “on the bench”. This refers to the fact that Judge Mosman verbally communicated his decision after lawyers for both parties presented oral arguments during a hearing. The hearing was conducted by telephone rather than in person (due to the coronavirus disease pandemic, many civil hearings are conducted by telephone). Maxine Bernstein from The Oregonian reports on the phone call and the statements of Judge Mosman during it. Bernstein cites the judge as distinguishing the two logos as independent pieces of intellectual property. Likewise, the judge considers the Nike design to be “new and very different” from the sketch Leonard drew when he was a student. Judge Mosman’s ruling also says he will separately issue a written opinion regarding Nike’s claims against Leonard.

Leonard can appeal a loss at the district court level to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Leonard’s attorney, Peter Ginsberg, told Bernstein he was “considering our options to protect Kawhi’s interests.” In the meantime, the logo is a property of Nike. Leonard therefore cannot license it to New Balance and other companies with which he has signed sponsorship agreements. That doesn’t stop these companies from developing their own properties and designs with Leonard. At this point, New Balance is marketing Leonard-related clothing and footwear products which does not show a claw. These companies may potentially offer to purchase or license the Klaw logo from Nike; whether Nike would strike a deal with a competitor is less clear.

We’ll keep you posted on further developments in the logo litigation and battle.

Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law.

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