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‘Be careful using celebrity images on your social media’

The rise in social media raises the question of whether – and how – a business can use a celebrity’s image.

Fashion retailers are engaging with their customers in many new ways and while many will be familiar with traditional media’s restrictions, these sites are still relatively unchartered territory.

An ongoing dispute in the US between Burberry and Humphrey Bogart’s estate is a good example. Burberry posted an image from Casablanca of Bogart in a trench coat on its social networking pages.

The estate objected to Burberry attempting to affiliate itself with Bogart, as in real life he was a loyal Aquascutum customer. 

So-called ‘image rights’ are not a concept in English law, but some claims have succeeded under the law of passing off. Bogart’s estate was able to launch its suit against British-based Burberry because images used on websites are global, and publicity rights are stronger in the US.

My advice to retailers is not to use images of celebrities in a way that could be construed as endorsement – for example, split commerce from social media and editorial activity. 

Finally, never use a celebrity image on social media sites without legal clearance. They are considered advertising space in the UK and it could prove extremely costly.

  • Nikki Powell, Intellectual property expert at law firm Addleshaw Goddard

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