New Ground On Celebrities' Rights


While millions watched Usain Bolt's triple gold medal and world-record breaking performances during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, some were making plans to profit from the sports celebrity's meteoric rise to stardom without any regard for or reference to him.

Merchandise, trade marks and websites bearing, comprising or displaying the athlete's name or image burgeoned within days of the Olympian's historic feats, falsely implying either an association with or an endorsement by Usain Bolt. Some particularly ingenious people who were evidently tracking the his steady rise to success over time filed pre-emptively for the registration of intent-to-use trade marks comprising Bolt's name or derivatives thereof, in various countries including the US, Jamaica and, not surprisingly, China which received several such applications.

The discovery of these activities stirred not only quick action by Bolt's management team but also prompted the intervention of government of Jamaica (GOJ) officials who publicly condemned the commercialisation without authorisation of the celebrity's name and image. The Jamaica Intellectual Property Office (JIPO) even unilaterally rejected on the basis of bad faith some Usain Bolt trade mark applications and issued a public statement pledging to do the same in relation to other famous Jamaican athletes.

Although the GOJ lamented the loss of potential revenue that could be earned by Jamaican athletes through legitimate endorsements and character merchandising, local fans were not unanimous in their condemnation of the unauthorized acts. Some street vendors who were making a quick buck by selling T-shirts bearing Bolt's image called for a "freeing up of Usain goods" after Bolt's management team threatened legal action and solicited the support of the local authorities in clamping down on these activities. "The Star", a local evening newspaper, reported that these vendors considered the clampdown as "slapping food off their plates", equating the Usain T-shirts, apparently their best-selling items, with the Jamaican flag, which they were free to sell "in spreading their joy" about his victories in Beijing.

The public condemnation by the GOJ, the actions by JIPO and the move by Bolt's management to stem unauthorised merchandising were in effect taken to safeguard the celebrity's image from misappropriation. Misappropriation (or wrongful appropriation), where perpetrators take advantage of the tremendous goodwill in a celebrity's personality (his/her name, image likeness, signature, voice, mannerisms and other aspects of his/her persona) has plagued celebrities worldwide for years.

The question is how far the law goes in safeguarding a celebrity's image. The answer differs from country to country and...

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