Rihanna has won a legal battle with Topshop over a t-shirt featuring her image, though the ruling is specifically narrow so as to not introduce a new image right for celebrities.
The popstress sued the British retailer last year when it started selling a t-shirt with her image on it. However, the retail firm had correctly licensed the photo of the star featured on the garment from the copyright owner, meaning the singer couldn’t sue under copyright law.
The case reignited the debate about image rights, which don’t currently exist in the UK, but which give celebrities some control over the commercial exploitation of their image, even when they don’t own the intellectual property rights in photography or artwork in which they feature.
However, in the end Rihanna won her legal battle by utilising the more traditional concept of ‘passing off’, which protects consumers from being sold products they think have an official link to an individual or company, but do not.
To that end, the case depended on the argument that the picture used on Topshop’s t-shirt was “very similar” to imagery employed on the artwork to Rihanna’s album ‘Talk That Talk’. The judge ruled that there was sufficient similarity to confuse customers into thinking the t-shirt had been officially endorsed by the singer.
But, said judge Colin Birss, this ruling did not mean that celebrities had a “freestanding general right” to control the use of their image, and nor had Rihanna’s privacy been breached by the photographer who snapped the photo Topshop used.
The ruling in Rihanna’s favour could cost Topshop £3 million, though the retailer is expected to appeal.
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