RIHANNA: UK IMAGE RIGHTS OR JUST YOUR IMAGINATION?
Rihanna’s recent victory against Topshop may lead the casual observer to believe that those in the public eye have now been handed rights in their images just as they are in the US. The global pop star’s claim related to an oversized image of her face printed on t-shirts sold by Topshop. By all accounts it was a successful product with around 12,000 t-shirts being sold in 5 months, but Rihanna did not authorise the use of her image, let alone earn a penny from that use.
The image on the t-shirt was taken by an independent photographer while Rihanna was shooting her video for her single “We Found Love” on the streets of Belfast. Rihanna sued Topshop for passing off, claiming that the retailer had effectively misled the public into thinking that she had endorsed the product. Topshop did not help matters in this regard by initially calling it the Rihanna Tank t-shirt, albeit only for a few days. She was successful in her claim and convinced the judge that Topshop had indeed misrepresented to the public that she had endorsed the product which in turn had damaged Rihanna’s goodwill (in terms of lost sales to her merchandising business) and caused her to lose control of her reputation in the fashion world.
However, those thinking that this gives a free reign to celebrities worried about others exploiting their famous features will need to think again. The judge made it clear that he was basing his judgment on the specific facts involved in this case and that selling products emblazoned with the images of famous people was not in itself passing off. The factors that helped weigh the judgment in Rihanna’s favour in this instance were:-
• Rihanna’s pre-existing endeavours in the fashion industry and her position as a style icon to her fans which was evidenced by her collaboration with rival high street chain River Island;
• Topshop’s record of collaborating with celebrities such as Kate Moss on clothing lines made it more likely that the public believed that the t-shirt was a result of the store’s latest celebrity endorsement. This was given further weight as Rihanna herself had been connected with Topshop through a marketing event and a publicised shopping trip;
• The photo, while not an official one, was taken while she was recording a music video and the image in question was associated with her recent album “Talk Talk”. The judge decided that for Rihanna’s fans the t-shirt might well be thought to be part of a marketing campaign for the project;
• Rihanna has considerable goodwill not just in the music industry, but in the world of fashion.
In summary, it was the sale of this image of this person on this garment by this shop that decided the case in Rihanna’s favour.
So do celebrities now have rights in their images? Not really, but this may be a warning shot for those profiting from the use of celebrity images to not take things too far and give the impression that their products are actually endorsed by the featured stars.