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Ferragamo triumphs in the Supreme Court: Audrey Hepburn’s name forever linked to Florentine fashion house’s flats.

The Italian Supreme Court has ruled that Ferragamo’s flats can be marketed using the name and image of the world-famous actress Audrey Hepburn.

Indeed, the occurrence of a commercial or advertising purpose does not suffice to preclude, as a rule, the reproduction of the name or image of a famous person, provided that there is also an informative purpose. The latter may even prevail, subject to a careful balance, and legitimise the use of the name of a famous person in connection with certain products.

It was on the basis of this principle that the Italian Supreme Court rejected the appeal brought by Hepburn’s sons, Luca Dotti and Sean Hepburn Ferrer, against the well-known Florentine fashion house Salvatore Ferragamo.

Hepburn heirs’ action for compensation against Ferragamo’s shoes

In the first instance, the Court of Florence dismissed Ferragamo’s claim for damages in favour of Hepburn’s heirs for the unauthorised use of Audrey Hepburn’s name and for infringement of the registered trademark ‘Audrey Hepburn’, carried out through the promotion, for commercial purposes, of three pairs of flat shoes in association with the name of the acress: the iconic ‘Audrey Ballerina’ (shown below), the ‘Gondoletta Sandal’ and the ‘Ira Ballerina’.

‘Audrey Ballerina’ by Ferragamo (1954) extracted from the website

Subsequently, the Court of Appeal of Florence dismissed Hepburn’s heirs appeal, stating, inter alia, that: (i) Ferragamo had been specifically authorised to use the name Audrey Hepburn in relation to the ‘Ballerina Audrey’ shoe; and (ii) the juxtaposition made by the fashion house of its products with the name ‘Audrey Hepburn’ could not be considered detrimental to the right of economic exploitation of the name, since it had a purely descriptive purpose, as such legitimate.

The heirs appealed against the latter decision, challenging the legality of the use of their mother’s name absent their consent and in the presence of a promotional use.

The use of the name Audrey Hepburn is legitimate: the informational function prevails

In order to understand when the use of a name constitute abuse, the Supreme Court drew parallels between the regulation of personality rights under the Italian civil code, on the one hand, and the regulation under copyright law, on the other hand. In fact, the unauthorised publication of another person’s image is unlawful if it is for purely commercial, advertising or profit-making purposes and not for informational purposes. In cases where there is a combination of these uses, a careful balancing of the interests at stake must be carried out.

The Court distinguished between the ‘Audrey Ballerina‘ case, on the one hand, and the ‘Gondoletta Sandal‘ and the ‘Ira Ballerina‘ cases, on the other.

In the case of the ‘Audrey Ballerina‘, the Court of Appeal held that Ferragamo’s use of the name Audrey was part of a prior agreement between Ferragamo and a charitable foundation established by Audrey Hepburn’s children.

For the other two shoes, the name Audrey Hepburn appeared in the product description on the Ferragamo website. The ‘Gondoletta Sandal‘ referred to a specific model worn by Audrey Hepburn, while the ‘Ira Ballerina‘ created by Salvatore Ferragamo was one of several models created by the designer for the actress. Thus, despite the absence of an agreement between the parties on the use of the name Audrey Hepburn, the judges considered prevailing the essentially informative purpose, related to the need to indicate the prestigious origin of the shoes and the context in which it was made.

Short remarks on the Court’s findings

The Supreme Court has undoubtedly clarified that the use of another person’s name without their consent is permissible, after a careful balancing of the conflicting interests, only if, and in so far as, it meets informational needs, while being directed at advertising purposes.

Taking a cautious approach, the Court’s decision allowing fashion houses to use celebrities’ name when their garments have been worn by famous people or created for them undoubtedly represents an opportunity in terms of strategic choices for fashion industry competitors.

This newsletter is for the sole purpose of providing updates and general information and is not intended as legal advice on any particular or specific issue.
For clarifications or information, please contact the authors or your reference professional in the Intellectual Property area at our Firm.

Niccolò Ferretti, Partner
T.: +39 026575181

Emanuela Gaia Zapparoli, Counsel
T.: +39 026575181

Valentina D’Adda, Trainee
T.: +39 026575181

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