A US court has sided with Bob Marley’s family, which sued a company that sold shirts depicting the reggae legend, in a case with potential ramifications for merchandise of other deceased stars.
The estate of the Jamaican icon had filed a suit after low-cost T-shirts—featuring a photo of a speaking Marley next to the yellow, green and red colors associated with his Rastafarian faith—went on sale at Walmart, Target and other major US retailers.
A jury in the western state of Nevada in 2011 awarded more than US$2 million in damages and legal fees to firms owned by Marley’s children that said they had lost an order to sell T-shirts at Walmart as the unauthorized rival was distributing a similar product.
The defendants lodged an appeal that was rejected Friday by a federal court, which agreed that the non-family companies violated the 1946 Lanham Act, a key US law on copyright infringement.
The court, which heard a survey of 509 customers at a shopping mall, agreed that the T-shirts could create an impression that Marley had endorsed them.
“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?” asked Judge N. Randy Smith of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which is based in San Francisco with jurisdiction across the West Coast.
“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.”
The accused company, A.V.E.L.A., had said that recognizing such an argument for a dead person would essentially create a federal right of publicity—how a person can be used for commercial purposes.
Individual US states have established a right to publicity but, despite longstanding debate, there is no law at a federal level.
Marley, who would have turned 70 this month, died in 1981 but his music and advocacy of social justice still carry wide appeal.
Read More at Jamaica Observer