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INSIGHT: Rihanna defeats Topshop in T-shirt face-off

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In a recent case a High Court Judge has ruled that a T-shirt bearing the pop star, Rihanna’s, image would lead consumers to believe it was approved by her. Chris Burke, Pearson Solicitors Commercial Litigation partner, provides his view of this case of “passing off”.

Rihanna TshirtChris Burke commented, “In principle there is nothing unlawful in selling clothing with the images of celebrities without their approval.  Rihanna won because of the very fact-specific nature of the case – it does not mean every celebrity will win an action of this type - her position as a style icon and the fact that it looked like official Rihanna merchandise were crucial factors.

The Judge reinforced this when he said the mere sale by a trader of a T-shirt bearing the image of a famous person is not an act of passing off. However, he found that Topshop’s sale of this T-shirt was an act of passing off; a substantial number of buyers were likely to have been deceived into purchasing the Rihanna T-shirt, which bore a close resemblance to images on her album cover, because they believed it had been authorised by the singer.  That was “damaging to her goodwill” and “represented a loss of control over her reputation in the fashion sphere."

"Passing Off"

This decision does not change the law of passing off in the UK.  But it does clarify for retailers the very restricted conditions where the Court, in the absence of any evidence of consumer confusion, might be persuaded to consider that a significant number of customers would be motivated to purchase the T-shirt on the false belief they thought it had been authorised, or endorsed, by the celebrity in question.

Rihanna has claimed damages, in the region of £3m, which will be dealt with at a later date.

Topshop said it was “surprised, disappointed and perplexed”, adding: “There was no intention by Topshop to create the appearance of an endorsement or promotion. (…) that the fact that Rihanna has shopped, worn and had a relationship with Topshop for several years appears to have been detrimental to our case.” They are seeking permission to appeal.

Contact our Commercial Litigation team

Further information is available about our Commercial Litigation services by contacting partner, Chris Burke.

Please note that the information and opinions contained in this article are not intended to be comprehensive, nor to provide legal advice. No responsibility for its accuracy or correctness is assumed by Pearson Solicitors and Financial Advisers Ltd or any of its members or employees. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking, or refraining from taking, any action as a result of this article.

This blog was posted some time ago and its contents may now be out of date. For the latest legal position relating to these issues, get in touch with the author - or make an enquiry now.

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