In great news for Bob Marley’s heirs and for all celebrities who want people to stop printing their face on stuff, Fifty-Six Hope Road Music—the company that controls the licensing of Marley’s image—had their trial win over merchandisers using the reggae legend’s face without permission affirmed on Friday.
Fifty-Six originally sued A.V.E.L.A. and other companies back in 2008 for selling t-shirts featuring photos of Marley in Walmart, Target, and a bunch of other major retailers. In 2011, the case finally went to trial, where Marley’s heirs were granted a multi-million dollar win; but since then the case has been lingering in the appeals court. Fifty-Six had their win affirmed on Friday.
Judge N. Randy Smith laid out the biggest question of the trial: “This case presents a question that is familiar in our circuit. When does the use of a celebrity’s likeness or persona in connection with a product constitute false endorsement that is actionable under the Lanham Act [the act that prohibits trade infringement and false advertising]?” The eventual ruling is based on the fact that using Marley’s likeness without permission confuses the origin of the product being sold, making it seem like it’s endorsed by Marley’s estate; this was proved to be true in a survey on consumers carried out by the plaintiffs.
What this all means is that it’s going to be tricky from now on for merchandisers to print photos of Marley or any other public figure without endorsement from that figure’s estate. See also: Rihanna’s win over Topshop last month, also for printing her face on unauthorised t-shirts.
The moral of the story? If you want to stick someone’s face on something and sell it, probably check it’s cool with them first.
By Aimee Cliff