Bob Marley's Estate Wins Appeal Over Unauthorized Image Use

Multi-million dollar lawsuit upheld after appeals court rules the reggae legend's trademark was infringed by merchandiser

Bob Marley performing on stage June 3rd, 1977 at the U.K.'s Rainbow Theatre Credit: Vincent McEvoy/Redferns

Online vendors are flooded with shirts memorializing rockers like Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse, with much of that clothing produced without the authorization of the artists' estate. However, a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision could change all that after the court sided with Bob Marley's heirs regarding shirts bearing the image of the late reggae legend that were made without the estate's permission, the Hollywood Reporter writes.

In 2008, Marley's family, who had partnered with a merchandising company called Fifty-Six Hope Road Music, sued clothing makers A.V.E.L.A. for creating Marley shirts that featured the Legend singer's image and selling them through retailers like Target and Walmart. Three years later, a court ruled in favor of the Marley family and ordered A.V.E.L.A. to pay over $2 million in damages. The ruling languished in appeals for nearly four years until yesterday's decision that confirmed the original judgment.

"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," 9th Circuit Judge N. Randy Smith wrote, citing a 1946 law aimed at protecting against trademark infringement and false advertising. Smith's ruling could set a precedent on all similar cases moving forward.

The parameters of the Lanham Act were frequently questioned during the appeals process, so the Marley family conducted a survey: They showed two T-shirts to 509 people at shopping malls – one shirt was A.V.E.L.A.'s unauthorized Marley shirt, the other shirt featured a random African-American with dreadlocks – and asked "Who do you think gave their permission or approval for this particular T-shirt to be made or put out?" 37 percent of those surveyed believed the A.V.E.L.A. shirt was officially licensed by the Marley estate, which helped cement their case that the Lanham Act must protect the reggae legend's image.

Since the initial ruling, the Marley estate has expanded the reach of their copyright, using the singer's image on items that range from coffee and headphones to an official marijuana. The Marley family will also reissue much of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's catalog on what would have been his 70th birthday.