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In March 2021, Lil Nas X released his latest song “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” As an extension of the religious symbolism and iconography in his music video, Lil Nas X announced the release of his limited edition “Satan Shoes.” Lil Nas X collaborated with MSCHF Product Studio to create 666 pairs of custom black Nike Air Max 97s. The shoes feature a pentagram pendant, a bible verse on the sole, and an air bubble sole containing red ink combined with one drop of human blood taken from a member of the MSCHF art collective.
At a price point of $1,018 per pair, Lil Nas X’s limited-edition sneakers sold out in minutes. Both the shoes and Lil Nas X’s music video quickly gained traction in the media and on the internet. The shoes also drew the attention of Nike. Within a day, Nike filed suit in the Eastern District of New York against MSCHF for trademark infringement and trademark dilution. Nike alleged that the Satan Shoes were made without the company’s approval or authorization. Furthermore, Nike asserted that the shoes were “likely to cause confusion and dilution and create an erroneous association between MSCHF’s products and Nike.”
Nike’s lawsuit was surprising given that there is an established market for custom shoes, especially Nike shoes. Artists have successfully relied on the freedom of expression and the first sale doctrine when purchasing branded products and altering them for resale. Indeed, MSCHF had previously released white “Jesus Shoes” which featured an air bubble sole containing holy water. Nike clearly took issue with the Satan Shoes due to their association with a controversial topic. Nike attempted to bypass the first sale doctrine by alleging that the customizations to the Satan Shoes were material alterations that were not authorized and could result in safety risks to consumers.
Ultimately, Nike and MSCHF decided to forgo an uncertain and protracted litigation. Rather, the parties reached a settlement. MSCHF issued a voluntary recall on the Satan Shoes and offered a buy-back program for the Jesus Shoes. Nike stated that if any purchasers were confused or wished to return either shoe, they could do so and receive a full refund. On the other hand, MSCHF stated that it had “already achieved its artistic purpose” and the shoes were “works of art that will continue to represent the ideals of equality and inclusion.” It is indisputable that the shoes left their mark.