Amidst its record-breaking IPO, which took place on Friday, it is easy to momentarily forget the sheer volume of infringing goods being hawked on Chinese marketplace website, Alibaba and its sister sites (Tao Bao, Tmall, etc.). One such product, aside from the countless Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Hermes counterfeits, that was brought to our attention recently: the 2014 New 3D Rihanna sweatshirt. So, what is wrong here, exactly? Well, a few things, but namely, copyright infringement and misappropriation and violation of the right of publicity.
It is likely very safe to assume that Hong Kong Family Love Tree Apparel Co., Ltd., the Guangdong-based seller of the sweatshirt at issue here, has no rights in the image that appears on the garment. As a result, putting the image of Rihanna on the sweatshirt and offering it for sale is a violation of the rights of the copyright holder of the image, one that was taken while the singer was filming her "We Found Love" music video in Belfast. The copyright here belongs to PA Images, a UK-based image provider, and thus, while HongKong Family Love Tree Apparel is not the copyright holder, it likely did not license the photo either, making this a violation of PA Images' right to reproduce and distribute copies or derivatives of the image.
The singer's misappropriation and violation of the right of publicity claims are a bit more difficult, and the strength of such claims depends greatly on the jurisdiction where the case is (hypothetically) filed. If the case were to be filed in the UK, though, we have some very interesting case law to reference. You may recall that Rihanna filed and won her lawsuit against Topshop last year. The British fast fashion giant was selling a t-shirt with the singer's image on it. The ruling in that case is significant because the law governing image/publicity rights in the U.K. does not mirror the strong publicity rights of celebrities in the U.S., and thus, the outcome of that case sets a new precedent for future cases where a star’s association with a brand is implied by their name or face being used unwillingly.
While Alibaba has been working to crack down on the volume of infringing goods on its site (as of this Spring, it had cut down on 87 million listings that may have run afoul of intellectual property laws), its struggle to fight both copyright and trademark infringement is part of a larger problem China faces, as the country is host to a number of markets known for “prominent and extensive availability of counterfeit merchandise,” according to the U.S. Trade Representative.