Rihanna is suing Topshop for allegedly selling a t-shirt, which bears her image, without her consent.  The t-shirt in question, which was on sale in Topshop stores in the UK at the end of 2012, had an image of Rihanna’s face from her “We Found Love” music video, reports WWD.

The case will be heard this summer in the English High Court and, if Rihanna wins, may mark a turning point in high street retailers’ use of celebrity images.

Currently, in the UK, a celebrity does not have a standalone right to control the commercial use of his or her name, image, likeness, or other aspects of his or her identity – a so called “right of publicity” or “image rights”.   Instead, a celebrity who wants to prevent unauthorised use of his or her image must rely on general rights.  In some situations, an image used may be protected by copyright, but frequently this copyright is owned by a photographer, artist or videographer, rather than the celebrity.  Alternatively, it may be possible to bring an action to show that the public has been misled into thinking that the celebrity has endorsed the product.  Neither solution is entirely satisfactory to celebrities, or to the brands that license “exclusive” rights to use a celebrity’s image on apparel or other merchandise.

More dramatically, some personalities, e.g. David Beckham and Russell Brand, have obtained some trademark protection for their image.  But these trademarks are for specific goods and services and do not empower their owners to stop all uses of their likeness.

Contrast this with the position in the U.S., where a number of U.S. states – albeit to varying degrees – recognise the right of personality by which individuals can protect their likeness.  It is notable that, although Topshop has a number of stores throughout the U.S., the t-shirt in question was not on sale in the U.S. where there is a right of publicity.

The protection of image rights in the UK is in flux and it’s not certain how the law will evolve.  Celebrities and the brands that are willing to pay to license their images will be hoping the English High Court rules in favor of Rihanna this summer; the high street may well be hoping for a very different outcome!  As and when this story develops, CovBrands will keep you updated.