The news broke in late May that US pop star Rihanna is suing high street fashion chain Topshop for using an image of her on a t-shirt without her permission.
Singer Rihanna has filed a claim against Topshop, allegedly for $5 million. The claim relates to the unauthorised use of an image of Rihanna's face on one of the retailer's t-shirts. Unlike the US, the UK does not recognise "image rights" per se, and claimants seeking to prevent use of their likeness by third parties must seek to rely on a collection of other intellectual property rights, including copyright infringement (if they own the copyright in the photograph and are not merely the subject of it) and passing off.
Passing off is perhaps the more relevant cause of action as there is a precedent in English law in the form of Irvine v Talksport* , in which racing driver Eddie Irvine successfully sued the defendant for use of his image to falsely suggest his endorsement of the Talksport radio station.
Given recent press reports that Topshop has released another t-shirt, this time bearing an image (allegedly) of the star's bottom half, clad in a pair of hot pants, it seems likely that this dispute could escalate. It serves as a warning to retailers and designers alike that despite the fact we tend to consider modern celebrities as public property, their intellectual property rights are not. Moreover, celebrities usually have the funds and the legal representation to prove that they are not. In the current economic climate (which saw Philip Green's Arcadia Group, Topshop's parent company, announce a 38% drop in annual profits as recently as 2011), this is a battle most in the fashion industry would want to avoid.