Just Don’t Infringe Copyright, Kawhi Leonard Tells Nike

Advertising Law

After a grueling six-game battle against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals, Kawhi Leonard is facing another opponent, this time in the courtroom: Nike.

Leonard recently filed suit in California federal court accusing Nike of fraudulently registering for copyright of his personal logo. After being drafted into the NBA in 2011, Leonard claimed that he authored a unique logo featuring elements that were “meaningful and unique to him,” by tracing his hand (the Toronto Raptors forward “is known for his extremely large hands”) and drawing stylized versions of his initials, “KL,” and the number “2,” which he had worn for much of his career.

When he signed an endorsement deal with Nike in October 2011, the parties discussed the use of a personal logo for merchandise. Leonard shared his logo with Nike, he said, and the company provided multiple rounds of proposals to modify it. According to the complaint, Leonard rejected the bulk of the proposed tweaks but granted the company permission in June 2014 to affix the logo on Nike merchandise during the term of the agreement.

Adamant that he never transferred to Nike the rights to his logo, Leonard told the court he continued to use it on non-Nike goods, including apparel and merchandise for basketball camps, appearances and charity events, even while Nike was using the logo on its merchandise.

Nike then filed with the U.S. Copyright Office an application to register the “Kawhi Leonard Logo”—without Leonard’s knowledge or consent, according to the complaint—which was granted in May 2017.

When Leonard’s deal with Nike ended and he continued to use the logo—after signing an agreement with New Balance—Nike reached out to Leonard to tell him that it owned the copyright. After the parties traded cease and desist letters, Leonard filed suit.

He asked the court for a declaration that he is the sole author of the Leonard logo, that his use doesn’t infringe any rights of Nike and that the company committed fraud on the Copyright Office in registering the logo.

To read the complaint in Leonard v. Nike, Inc., click here.

Why it matters: While we do not know at this time how Leonard’s endorsement agreement with Nike dealt with the intellectual property issues related to Leonard’s logo, Leonard’s lawsuit provides an important lesson for companies and endorsers alike to set clear parameters about the ownership and usage of intellectual property in endorsement deals, both during and after the term of the parties’ agreement—or face the possibility of litigation down the road.