Rihanna has won a significant legal battle with Topshop over the unauthorised use of her image on certain t-shirts sold by the fashion retailer.  While the assessment of damages has yet to be made, the decision can be seen as a victory for celebrities wishing to control the commercial use of their image.

Rihanna took the action against Arcadia Group Brands Limited, the parent company of Topshop, claiming that the use of her image on certain t-shirts constituted an act of passing off. The t-shirts in question bore an image of the artist taken in Northern Ireland in 2011 during a video shoot which is closely associated with the cover of her most recent album. The t-shirts went on sale in March 2012. Topshop argued that it had a licence from the photographer and that this was sufficient to allow it to use the image without the singer’s consent.

After establishing that Rihanna had a certain fashion icon status among the relevant section of the public, the court held that the t-shirts in question were likely to mislead or induce consumers to purchase them on the false belief they had been authorised by singer.It further reasoned that as Topshop has numerous endorsement deals with other celebrities, this would increase the public perception that the company had entered a similar arrangement with Rihanna. The court also relied on the fact that Topshop’s official Twitter account mentioned that the singer was in its Oxford Circus store in February 2012, which could also suggest that a commercial arrangement had been entered into between the parties.

The court held that the widely used notion of ‘image rights’ were not at issue in this case as under English law there is “no such thing as a free standing general right by a famous person (or anyone else) to control the reproduction of their image”. In order to control the distribution of images, persons must own the copyright in that image or establish a case of passing off.

This decision is an interesting addition to the law of passing off, especially in the context of the wider debate on privacy that is ongoing in the UK and Ireland, as it examines how modern technology, such as Twitter, can impact upon well-established areas of law such as passing off and copyright.