Image Rights – Rihanna V Topshop

In February of this year, the singer Rihanna won a legal battle against high street store Topshop over a T-shirt bearing her image. The Court of Appeal’s decision was interesting for a number of reasons. This was the first reported English case of a celebrity claimant successfully relying on passing off to claim compensation for unauthorised use of their personal image. In addition, it helped clarify the law on image rights and highlighted the varying circumstances that constitute ‘passing off’.

The case arose when Topshop used an image of Rihanna on one of their T-shirts, which was taken during the filming of her 2011 single ‘We Found Love’. Whilst Topshop had lawfully acquired the image, Rihanna’s legal representatives claimed that the T-shirt was produced without her consent and that this created a misrepresentation that the shirt was endorsed by her; culminating in a form of ‘passing off’. The Court of Appeal agreed that the sale of merchandise bearing a celebrity’s image does not, in itself, amount to passing off. However, where this use gives rise to a mistaken belief that the goods had been endorsed, passing off could be claimed.

One of the interesting aspects of this decision is that there is no ‘personality/image right’ in UK law. The photographer who takes the photo effectively owns the copyright, and not the celebrity. The facts which made this case different however was that Rihanna already had an association with Topshop and the photograph on the T-shirt was very similar to those used on her album. This subsequently increased the likelihood of customers being misled into believing that she had endorsed the merchandise.

Despite there being no ‘image right’ in UK law, the decision has established a threshold where a claim of ‘passing off’ can be brought; namely, whether or not the unauthorised use of the image misleads the public. As a result, this decision does not necessarily pave the way for other celebrities to sue companies who have used their image without permission.

For more information on image rights and trademark law, feel free to give us a call on 01536 276300. Our team of legal professionals have a wealth of experience in commercial disputes and provide clear, easy to understand legal advice at low sensible fees.