Belfast Telegraph

Topshop plea in Rihanna T-shirt row

High Street store Topshop has asked the Court of Appeal to intervene in its T-shirt row with singer Rihanna.

Court 68 at the Royal Courts of Justice in London has been given a shopping mall makeover with racks of T-shirts on display for the three appeal judges hearing the two-day case.

Last year a High Court judge concluded that Ri-Ri's fans might have been deceived into thinking she had endorsed a fashion T-shirt sold by Topshop.

Rihanna's lawyers said the image was from an unauthorised photograph taken while the star was filming a video in Northern Ireland for one of her singles in 2011.

Mr Justice Birss ruled that Topshop's sale of the Rihanna "tank" sleeveless T-shirt bearing the image without her approval was, in the circumstances, ''passing off''.

Today Topshop lawyers asked the appeal judges - Lord Justice Richards, Lord Justice Kitchin and Lord Justice Underhill - to rule that the single judge had erred in his approach to the law on celebrity merchandising.

Geoffrey Hobbs QC, appearing for Topshop, said the starting point in the case was that the court was dealing with a "decorated T-shirt" in a tradition of the merchandising of star images over the decades, including those of Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix and Prince.

Mr Hobbs argued that Rihanna was in reality wrongly using the law on passing off to claim that "only a celebrity may ever market his or her own character".

Rihanna has various lucrative endorsement deals with retailers including Topshop's high-street rival River Island.

Mr Hobbs contended that the public had no expectation that clothes bearing an image were authorised by people shown in that image.

He challenged Mr Justice Birss's ruling that, although celebrities had no general right to control the reproduction of their image, Topshop's use of RiRi's image did amount to passing off.

The judge had observed it was damaging to the star's "goodwill" and ultimately represented a loss of control over her reputation in the "fashion sphere".

Mike Gardner, a partner and head of intellectual property and commercial at Wedlake Bell LLP, commented on the case: "Unlike in some other countries, in the UK celebrities have no legal right, as such, to control the use that is made of their image.

"But if a product is marketed in such a way as to suggest, incorrectly, that they have endorsed or approved it, then this can amount to illegal passing off.

"Although each case is different, if Topshop fails to overturn the ruling, this may discourage other retailers from selling similar items in the future and may lead other celebrities to take a tougher line in policing their rights.

"But if Topshop is successful, celebrities and their management teams may have to think more about how they can best protect their branding in countries like the UK which do not recognise image rights."

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