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Music superstar Rihanna has won her $5.5 million court battle against the parent company of the clothing store Topshop, Arcadia Group Brands Ltd, who she sued in 2012 in order to prevent the sale of a T-shirt on which her image was printed. Even though Arcadia had obtained permission to use the image from the photographer, the singer had not authorized the store to do so, which in the UK amounts to a violation commonly known as “passing off.” The term is applied in the enforcement of trademark rights which are not registered.
Although High Court judge Mr. Justice Birss had made a prior ruling which banned Topshop from selling the tank top bearing Rihanna’s image, lawyers for Topshop filed an appeal, alleging that Birss did not understand the correct application of the law concerning the sale of celebrity merchandise. Geoffrey Hobbs QC, attorney for Topshop, argued that the shirt was nothing more than a “decorated T-shirt” along the lines of other shirts which have been sold for years containing images of celebrities such as Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley. Hobbs argued that Rihanna’s attorneys were applying the trademark rights law in error by essentially contending that a celebrity is the only person allowed to “market his or her character.”
The 26-year-old pop star’s attorneys said the image on the shirt had come from an unauthorized picture of her taken in 2011 while she was in Northern Ireland filming the video for her hit song, We Found Love. They asked the appeals court to uphold the ban so that Topshop could no longer exploit the singer’s likeness.
The Court of Appeal did not agree, and upheld the ban. The ruling sets an important precedent for the protection of the rights celebrities have concerning the use of their images. All three judges ruled to dismiss the appeal.
Appeal Court Lord Justice Kitchin gave the lead judgment, in which he found that Birss “was entitled” to his finding that Topshop had been “passing off” in the sales of the shirt. The judges also ruled that the sale would likely lead a large number of Rihanna’s fans to believe that the store had been authorized by her to sell the tank. Hobbs disagreed with both points, saying that Topshop did not “pass off” because celebrities are not automatically granted the right to maintain control over how their image is used. He also argued that people viewing clothes which contained images of celebrities did not assume that the images had been authorized by said celebrity.
Birss ruled that the unauthorized sale of the shirts bearing Ri-Ri’s image would damage her “goodwill,” and that if she were unable to control the use of her image, her reputation in the world of fashion would be harmed. Rihanna does have numerous endorsement deals with other retailers, including River Island, which is a direct competitor of Topshop.
Arcadia did not comment on the ruling. Attorney Michael Skrein of the law firm which represents Rihanna, Reed Smith LLP, said via e-mail that “the judgement speaks for itself.” A request to appeal the decision was denied by the Appeals Court.
By Jennifer Pfalz
Photo by thinkretail – License