ESPN just published an interesting article that surveys a range of athletes seeking trademark registrations on catch phrases or other aspects of identity. It’s a valuable brand-building step and it has it’s place as a compliment to the Right of Publicity. What the article does not touch on, the elephant in the room, is the question of actual use. Sure, Robert Griffin can apply for “unbelievably believable” but show me the use in commerce. Some athletes obviously will satisfy the use component, but my guess is that the majority of these applications will fall into abandonment, or even fail to to reach registration.
As previously noted on RightOfPublicity.com, singer Rihanna has been engaged in litigation in the UK against apparel company Topshop for selling shirts prominently featuring her image and officially labeled the “Rihanna Tank.”
The article on this link goes to some length discussing whether the UK recognizes “image rights” or whether this shirts rises to the level of passing off or false endorsement. The reason for this distinction, in part, is related to the legal standards in the UK for these kinds of cases. The recent ruling found Topshop guilty of passing off.
Rihanna is suing for $5 million as this article reports. It sounds like while this ruling is in her favor, damages have not yet been assessed. My prediction: settlement is imminent. While settlement is not guaranteed, my experience is that the gamble and expense of pressing on in ligation becomes less and less attractive to a defendant, especially after significant rulings are secured in favor of the plaintiff.
It’s always interesting to observe the debate over whether a personality should or should not have a right to take action in response to such unauthorized products. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where a product like this, from a company like Topshop, should be permissible without permission of and compensation to the featured personality. I’m glad the UK court seems to agree.
Maybe the UK should look more closely at passing a Right of Publicity or “image rights” law. The notion of “passing off” has worked for Rihanna in this instance, but passing off is not as well-tuned and form-fitting as the Right of Publicity for cases of this nature.
The objective of cashing in on Rihanna’s value is apparent and manifest in the product itself. Is there a “greater good” that would be served by allowing a company to appropriate the hard-earned and valuable rights and interests of a personality?
Here’s the link to the Guardian’s coverage: