By Robert Stitt
A United States court of appeals recently took on a case in which a company used the likeness of a dead celebrity. The estate of the celebrity sued. The courts found in favor of the estate. Specifically, a company by the name of A.V.E.L.A. has been selling t-shirts with Bob Marley’s likeness. Not only have they sold the shirts, but they have locked up deals with retail giants like Walmart and Target.
Marley’s estate sued when they made shirts shirts with the face of the late Jamaican singer and human rights activist and they were turned down by retailers since A.V.E.L.A. was already providing a similar product. In 2011, a court in Nevada found that A.V.E.L.A. had violated the Lanham Act which prohibited copyright infringement. The court awarded Marley’s estate over $2 million in damages. The company appealed. The appeals court has also found in favor of the estate.
Judge N. Randy Smith of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, had this to say, “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?”
A British court recently ruled in favor of Rihanna in a similar case. The U.S. courts ruled against the estate of Princess Dianna. The major difference was that Princess Dianna’s estate did not attempt to prevent the use of her likeness during her life and Rhianna did. Marley did also, hence the court’s ruling, “We conclude that the evidence presented at trial was sufficient for a jury to find defendants violated the Lanham Act by using Marley’s likeness.”
One of the things that really worked in favor of the estate was the testimony of the photographer Roberto Rabanne. Rabanne was the one who took the pictures A.V.E.L.A. used for their shirts. He said that the company tried to get him to falsify evidence, wanting him to say that he had used Marley’s image when the artist was alive without permission.
In making their judgement for the estate, the court, in essence, answered questions about celebrity likenesses in at least some circumstances. Because of the ruling, many other estates now may sue companies who are using the likenesses of their dead loved ones without their consent. According to EurWeb, some of the best selling images include Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.