Rihanna Topshop T-shirt ruling due

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Published: Thursday 22nd January 2015 by The News Editor

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The Court of Appeal will rule today on a T-shirt row between high street store Topshop and singer Rihanna in an important case on celebrity “image rights”.

Topshop’s appeal is against a High Court finding that selling a Rihanna “tank” sleeveless T-shirt bearing her image without her approval amounts to ”passing off”, a term used to enforce unregistered trademark rights.

High Court judge Mr Justice Birss ruled that the 26-year-old pop diva’s fans might be deceived into thinking she had endorsed the T-shirt.

Court 68 at the Royal Courts of Justice in London was given a shopping mall makeover with racks of T-shirts on display during a recent two-day appeal hearing, and now three appeal judges will give their decision.

Rihanna’s lawyers said the image was from an unauthorised photograph taken while the star was filming a video in Northern Ireland for one of her singles in 2011 and Topshop should remain banned from exploiting it.

Topshop lawyers are urging the appeal judges – Lord Justice Richards, Lord Justice Kitchin and Lord Justice Underhill – to rule that the single judge misunderstood the law on celebrity merchandising.

Geoffrey Hobbs QC, appearing for Topshop, which is part of the Arcadia Group, argued at the hearing 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 submitted Rihanna was in reality using the law wrongly to claim that “only a celebrity may ever market his or her own character”.

Rihanna has various lucrative endorsement deals with retailers including Topshop’s high-street rival River Island.

Mr Hobbs contended the public had no expectation that clothes bearing an image were authorised by people shown in that image.

He challenged Mr Justice Birss’s ruling that, although celebrities had no general right to control the reproduction of their image, Topshop’s use of RiRi’s image did amount to passing off.

The judge had observed the use was damaging to the star’s “goodwill” and represented loss of control over her reputation in the “fashion sphere”.

Mike Gardner, a partner and head of intellectual property and commercial at Wedlake Bell LLP, commented on the case: “Unlike in some other countries, in the UK celebrities have no legal right, as such, to control the use that is made of their image.

“But if a product is marketed in such a way as to suggest, incorrectly, that they have endorsed or approved it, then this can amount to illegal passing off.

“Although each case is different, if Topshop fails to overturn the ruling, this may discourage other retailers from selling similar items in the future and may lead other celebrities to take a tougher line in policing their rights.

“But if Topshop is successful, celebrities and their management teams may have to think more about how they can best protect their branding in countries like the UK which do not recognise image rights.”

Published: Thursday 22nd January 2015 by The News Editor

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