Rihanna Wins Lawsuit Against Topshop
Although primarily known for her music, worldwide famous pop star Rihanna gained increasing visibility in the fashion world these past few years through collaborations with various brands and regular features in fashion magazines and blogs. Her dispute with Topshop started in 2012 when the british High Street retailer started selling a t-shirt displaying Rihanna’s photo without her authorization. She thought it infringed her rights. Topshop didn’t. She sued. Granted, Topshop obtained a license from the photographer who took the picture. But what about Rihanna’s right of publicity? Interestingly enough, U.K. laws do not provide for such a protection. As the Court puts it : “Whatever may be the position elsewhere in the world, and how ever much various celebrities may wish there were, there is today in England no such thing as a free standing general right by a famous person (or anyone else) to control the reproduction of their image” Rihanna could not rely on a trademark infringement claim either, as it would have required the demonstration that the Topshop t-shirt at issue was showing her endorsing the brand. The lawsuit therefore had to be based on the English tort of passing off, for which Rihanna had to demonstrate a goodwill and reputation amongst relevant members of the public (1), a misrepresentation from Topshop’s part that was likely to deceive the public into buying the product thinking it was authorized by her (2), and damages to her goodwill as a result (3).
The Court found Rihanna to have ample goodwill considering her very large merchandising and endorsement operation as well as her substantial efforts to promote a specific association in the public mind between herself and the world of fashion. Her collaborations with brands like H&M, Gucci, Armani, and River Island were deemed sufficient to demonstrate her endorsement to have a tangible value on the market. According to the judge, Rihanna was and still is considered to be a style icon by a certain portion of females between 13 and 30, a public therefore interested in purchasing clothes Rihanna is seen to wear or approve of (1). Regarding the misrepresentation factor, the Court pointed out that Topshop’s reputation as a major High Street retailer, as well as the brand’s constant efforts to emphasize its connections with famous people likely created the assumption that the t-shirt was authorized. Moreover, as the image featured on the t-shirt was taken during Rihanna’s music video shoot, it may have been perceived as part of the official marketing campaign. Taking these factors into account, the judge found a misrepresentation (2) which caused damages to Rihanna’s goodwill by making her lose control over her reputation in the fashion world as well as sales losses to her own merchandising business (3).
While the court expressly stated that this case did not concern image rights, it nevertheless opens the door to alternative claims in that area and appears to direct a warning to fashion brands and retailers, by letting them know that using a celebrity’s image without authorization could turn against them, whether they own a license or not.