02 February 2015

Rihanna Wins Battle Against Topshop

The pop-star Rihanna has won a legal battle with Topshop over T-shirts bearing her image.

The high-street store had appealed against a High Court ruling that selling a sleeveless T-shirt bearing Rihanna’s image without her approval amounts to “passing-off”.

 

Last week the Court of Appeal upheld the ban on Topshop selling the item in a ruling that could prove important for future issues surrounding celebrity image rights. The singer had claimed an estimated £3.5 million in damages from Topshop’s parent company Arcadia for the wrongful use of her photograph, taken from a video shoot in 2011.

 In his ruling in July 2013, Mr Justice Birss said a “substantial number” of buyers were likely to have been deceived into buying the Rihanna T-shirt because of a “false belief” that it had been authorised by the singer. Mr Birss had added that because of her tie-up with high street rivals River Island, the Topshop T-shirt would be damaging to the singer’s goodwill and a loss to her merchandising business. “It also represents a loss of control over her reputation in the fashion sphere,” Mr Birss ruled at the time.

Lawyers for Topshop had urged the appeal judges to rule that Mr Justice Birss had misunderstood the law on celebrity merchandising. Geoffrey Hobbs QC, for Topshop, argued that the court was dealing with a “decorated t-shirt” in a tradition of the merchandising of star images over the decades, including those of Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix and Prince. Mr Hobbs suggested Rihanna was using the law wrongly to claim “only a celebrity may ever market his or her own character”. Topshop lawyers had previously argued there was “no intention to create an appearance of an endorsement or promotion”. All three judges unanimously dismissed the appeal.

 The case does not necessarily pave the way for other celebrities to sue retailers or brands who use their image without their permission. At present in the UK, there is no free standing law of ‘image rights’ that allows a person to control the reproduction of their image, contrasted with the US. Anyone seeking to protect and prevent the unauthorised use of their image, must choose from a variety of rights, including trade marks, copyright, designs and the developing law of privacy. The Court of Appeal has merely reinforced this position.

 In future, unless there is a real likelihood that consumers will believe something is endorsed by a celebrity when it is not, it is unlikely that the law of passing-off will be of much assistance to those in the UK looking to prevent third parties from riding on the back of their name and personal brand.

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