“Naadier Riles, the founder of Global Heartbreak, is not an independent creator when it comes to footwear—he is a bootlegger,” is the opening line of a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court of New Jersey last week by Nike, the world’s largest sneaker manufacturer. It’s suing Riles, a 26-year-old clothing designer who works out of his apartment in North Brunswick, New Jersey. Known professionally as Naady, he’s accused of copyright infringement for selling re-imagined versions of the Air Jordan 1 model.
Nike accused Naady’s company of causing it “to suffer irreparable injury to its business,” claiming that it “will suffer substantial loss of goodwill and reputation unless and until Global Heartbreak is permanently enjoined from the wrongful acts complained of herein.”
Global Heartbreak has produced 400 pairs of Naady’s designs over the years, not all of which have been sold; Nike sells approximately 100 pairs of sneakers every four seconds, or 780 million annually.
The lawsuit was “surprising,” says Brendan Dunne, editor of the top online sneaker magazine, Sole Collector, since Global Heartbreak’s operation is tiny. “I guess nothing is off the table,” he told Reason.
Naady’s sneaker design replaces the iconic Nike Swoosh with a broken heart pierced by a needle and uses different colors and details, though the shape and mold of the shoe are clearly taken from the Air Jordan 1.
Nike and its law firm, Arnold & Porter, didn’t respond to Reason’s interview requests, but the complaint states the company has a zero-tolerance policy when protecting its intellectual property. “Nike cannot allow bad actors such as [Riles]…to confuse consumers by building a business on the back of Nike’s most famous trademarks, undermining the value of those trademarks and the message they convey.”
This latest lawsuit is part of a recent, more litigious strategy by the sneakers giant. Trademarks are typically reserved for words, symbols, or logos used to identify a brand, such as the Swoosh or the phrase “Just Do It”; Nike has started filing trademarks based on the shape and structure of its products. Its most high-profile lawsuit is against the trendsetting Japanese fashion brand A Bathing Ape, or BAPE for short, which had been selling its sneakers for 20 years before Nike accused it of trademark infringement. The company, which operates its own chain and has far more resources than Global Heartbreak, continues to push for the dismissal of Nike’s lawsuit, and in the meantime, its sneakers have remained on the market. Smaller designers targeted by Nike have often signed out-of-court settlements, similar to the one offered to Naady, that prevent them from further sale of their shoes.
NYU Law Professor Christopher Sprigman, co-author of The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation, told Reason that the derivative designs of the sort sold by Global Heartbreak—known as “trade dress”—are both legal and essential to the creative process. “Copying is what helps set the trend that comes next,” he says. “So the fashion cycle runs and the fashion industry’s successive waves of innovation depend on copying.”
Sprigman appeared in a recent ReasonTV video titled, Why is Nike Stomping On Independent Creators?, which featured Naady’s sneakers. After Nike’s attorneys watched the video, they sent Naady a cease-and-desist.
Initially, he planned to comply, telling Reason that he’d eat the loss on his unsold shoes and focus on sales of his other merchandise. According to Naady, three weeks later, Nike offered him a confidential settlement, offering 90 days to sell off his inventory, as long as he complied with a list of demands that included publicly posting a statement saying that he was infringing on Nike’s intellectual property. Naady balked at that demand; he says that after he couldn’t get Nike’s lawyers on the phone, he turned to Instagram.
“I’m not signing shit until I get a better agreement from @nike,” Naady wrote in a post featuring a crossed-out version of Nike’s offered settlement. “Ima keep talking until I get a better offer until then suck dick.” He also shared a video of himself setting a pair of his sneakers on fire.
Nike lawyers included a screenshot of Naady’s post in their lawsuit.
“It is what it is,” Naady told Reason. “I guess I’ll take the hit for everybody that had to shut the fuck up. Maybe this is what I had to do to get noticed.”
“The amount of money Nike’s potentially losing to Global Heartbreak is, of course, minuscule,” says Dunne. “It’s just like, how small do you have to be for Nike not to care?”