“Under my Umbrella”: What UK businesses can learn from Rihanna about protecting their brands

brand protection

As singer Rihanna is taking her father to court in the US in a trademark dispute we look at what business can learn from the Grammy Award winning singer.

She claims that he, Ronald Fenty, is falsely claiming that she is connected to his business, Fenty Entertainment, and misleading the public for commercial advantage.

Rihanna has own her Fenty brand, used for her range of beauty products, and wants the court to bar her father’s firm from using this particular ‘F-word’ and implying her involvement. In a separately cited instance, Fenty Entertainment is also alleged to have been arranging live gigs for her, but without any authorisation to do so.

According to the lawsuit: “although Mr Fenty is Rihanna’s father, he does not presently, nor has he ever, had the authority to act on Rihanna’s behalf or had the right to use her Fenty mark, to exploit the goodwill of her Fenty brands or to solicit business on her behalf.” Citing breaches of advertising, competition and privacy laws, it claims “serious irreparable injury” to the Fenty brand if the violations are not stopped.

Commenting on this high-profile case, Clive Halperin, partner, and head of corporate commercial, GSC Solicitors says: “This illustrates that businesses, including celebrities, need to be aware – and ready – to protect themselves against misuse of their branding rights. Brand protection is an important strategy and there are a variety of legal mechanisms that can help stave off those looking to exploit brands and celebrities. Without such protection, others might not only mislead and upset customers, but deprive a brand or celebrity of income and damage their brand”

Notes Halperin: “One well established offence is that of ‘passing off’ – misleading people that goods or services – are associated with or endorsed by another better known brand, perhaps by using some identical or similar branding elements. This can easily mislead others into believing some kind of false endorsement or brand value that is not present at all, and thus cause damage and loss. Another area of concern is where there are actual trade mark infringements. These too can be defended, though cases will depend on the facts, such as the goods and services that are protected. Rihanna’s case may be more complicated because there are certain defences where you use your own name.

This is not the first time Rihanna has acted to defend her brand. In 2013 she litigated against Top Shop after the retailer sold t-shirts bearing her photograph without her permission. In that case the Court of Appeal felt her case was close to the borderline of being valid and only upheld the case on the particular circumstances of that case (which are unlikely to apply in many cases). It remains the fact that selling a garment with the image of a famous person is not, in and of itself, passing off.”

It can be a complex area – and Halperin notes that trade mark owners should be careful in bringing claims as there are risks in making ‘unjustified threats’ of trade mark infringement and sometimes it can trigger a claim that your own mark is invalid.

The Rihanna case comes as Irish fast-food chain Supermacs has won a legal battle against McDonald’s. It has persuaded the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) to cancel McDonald’s registration of the “Big Mac” trademark and this could now see Supermac stores expanding across the UK and Europe.

Unsurprisingly, Halperin’s advice to any business is to get good legal advice – early and often – to ensure that all intellectual property rights utilised by the business are protected as far as possible, to ensure any damages and losses can be minimised, and that robust action can be taken should it be required.