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Unregistered Rights and Rihanna

Rihanna’s successful claim against Topshop recently has demonstrated the importance for businesses to seek legal advice to ensure they do not infringe unregistered legal rights. In particular, as in this case, businesses need to be aware of the law of “passing off”, which protects unregistered trademarks or goodwill.

The case involved Topshop selling t-shirts which featured an image of pop artist Rihanna, but Topshop did not have Rihanna’s consent to use her image. Rihanna issued proceedings against Topshop claiming that the sale of the t-shirts without her permission amounted to a breach of the law of passing off. Rihanna claimed that people buying the t-shirts would believe that she had endorsed the product.

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The court held that on the facts of the case (namely Rihanna’s extensive merchandising and endorsement businesses, her past public association with Topshop and the distinctiveness of the image), the sale of the t-shirts amounted to a misrepresentation that Rihanna had endorsed the t-shirt and that, as a consequence, many Rihanna fans would have bought the t-shirt thinking that Rihanna had approved and authorised it.

Ways to Stop Unauthorised use of Images

It is generally well-known that in the UK there are no rights in your own image. That is why Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones relied on the law of confidentiality to protect their wedding photos. In making its finding in Rihanna’s case, the court emphasised that it was not creating a general right of image control. The particular circumstances – including the use of imagery that Rihanna would herself use in music videos and promotional material, and her previous association with Topshop - warranted a finding of liability.

From this we can see that there are ways in which famous people can try to stop the unauthorised use of their image. The decision also demonstrates that merchandising disputes can be messy where there isn’t a contract, which can lead to costly and time-consuming litigation. It is essential to obtain legal guidance from a specialist solicitor before exploiting any intellectual property rights, whether they are registered or unregistered.