When we think of branding, we often think of trademarks, but when a logo is based on creative artwork, it can also involve copyright. This is so in a dispute between basketball great Kawhi Leonard and his former sponsor Nike over a logo based on a drawing by Leonard that he gave to Nike for use as inspiration for a logo it designed and copyrighted.

Leonard’s copyright lawsuit

Now that Leonard’s sponsorship agreement with Nike has expired, he wants to use the logo — dubbed the “Klaw” because it incorporates elements of his hand, initials and jersey number — in his current and future business dealings.

According to Forbes, Leonard filed a federal copyright infringement lawsuit in California alleging that Nike is not justified in claiming copyright ownership of the logo he says he created. Leonard reportedly claims that he let Nike use the logo; that he continued to use it on other merchandise not created by Nike; and that Nike registered the copyright on the logo without his knowledge or permission.

Forbes reports that the suit claims Leonard only gave limited permission to use the logo and that he did not intend to transfer all his rights to Nike.

Nike’s countersuit

Nike has responded with a countersuit saying that it does have copyright to the logo because its own designers created it distinctly from the original sketch by Leonard, according to Oregon Live. Nike reportedly says that Leonard approved its final design as part of its contract with the company. For its part, Nike also claims copyright infringement based on Leonard’s use of the logo on non-Nike goods, as well as breach of contract.

Nike says that the contract provides that it owns all intellectual property created during the contractual relationship, reports Oregon Live.

It also asks that the lawsuit be transferred to Oregon federal court based on the contractual terms of the agreement with Leonard.

Some in the media speculate that the parties will reach compromise and settle this lawsuit out of court rather than proceed to trial. It will be an interesting case to follow.

This dispute provides another example of the importance of careful, ironclad intellectual property contracts between sponsors and athletes in the professional sports world. The ownership and licensing rights of each party should be crystal clear by carefully worded and comprehensive, descriptive contract language. The clarity of the contract will impact the likelihood of future intellectual property litigation such as a copyright infringement suit.