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What's in a name? Quite a lot when you're a star

Greg Wright Deputy Business Editor IT'S not a smart move to take liberties with the man who played Gordon Gekko or the crazed loner in Falling Down.

Film star Michael Douglas is gunning for two TV companies. He accuses them of improperly using his name and image to promote their products and services.

The lawsuit claims two segments the actor had taped for educational purposes were used for commercial gain by Family Television Studios and Paradigm Media Group.

It's alleged that both companies used Douglas' name and likeness to entice sponsors into giving money for TV segments that were never made or broadcast.

The dispute centres on image rights, which stars protect as jealously as their reputation. No celebrity likes to see an unauthorised source making money out of their good name.

So if you're in the public eye in the UK, do you have the same protection?

Not quite, said Nikki Ferguson, a Leeds-based associate and intellectual property specialist at international law firm Eversheds.

Unlike the United States and Germany, there are no image right laws in this country. So what would happen if Douglas tried to bring a case in the UK?

Ms Ferguson said: "In legal terms, the TV companies could be either in breach of contract, presuming the contract covered use restrictions or perhaps be liable for passing off, trade mark infringement or breach of ASA (Advertising Standard Authority) codes. There is a cluster of legal armoury that Michael Douglas could draw upon in order to win his case.

"Firstly, if Michael had any kind of contract between himself and the companies involved, it's likely that the use of his image purely for non-commercial broadcast is stipulated in the agreement.

"Secondly, using a person's name, reputation or image as endorsement for a company or product without gaining permission could give rise to a 'passing off' claim, as Michael may have grounds to argue that the TV companies involved have traded on the star's reputation, and indeed, goodwill, for commercial gain."

Firms are guilty of "passing off" if they use an image to wrongly infer that a celebrity is endorsing one of their products.

Ms Ferguson added: "If Michael had a registered trade mark, use of his name may be trade mark infringement.

"Also under the Advertising Codes, an individual's name must not be used to endorse a product without their consent. All of this would depend on how his name and image had been used to promote the video."

Some UK celebrities will take their battle to the courts. Racing driver Eddie Irvine successfully sued Talk Radio in 2002 for passing off.

As part of a promotional campaign, TalkSport had produced a brochure featuring a photograph of Irvine in a racing suit for Ferrari, for whom he was then driving.

The photograph had been manipulated so that instead of being seen talking on a mobile phone, Irvine was shown listening to a portable radio clearly branded as 'Talk Radio'. Irvine had not given permission for this or been paid for the endorsement.

greg.wright@ypn.co.uk