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Who Owns Your Tattoo?

Mike Tyson tattoo, copyright, law

When getting a new tattoo there are a lot of things to consider. You have to take care of your health by choosing a reputable artist who uses proper supplies and cleaning techniques. You have to decide on a great design and where on your body you want to display it. You may also have to consider the long term consequences regarding employment, and what it means for your career if you get a tattoo on your face or hands. One thing most people probably never even consider is who owns the rights to the design that is on your own skin.copyright definition, copyright law, copyright protection

There have been a couple of high profile cases, like in 2011 when the artist who inked Mike Tyson’s infamous face tattoo tried to sue Warner Bros. for using the design in a promotional image featuring an actor with the same tattoo on his face. Mike Tyson had signed a document stating stating “all artwork, sketches and drawings related to [his] tattoo and any photographs of [his] tattoo are property of Paradox-Studio of Dermagraphics.” Signing this agreement gave his artist full control of the rights to that work. Taking it a step further, the artist, S. Victor Whitmill, registered his copyright of the tattoo with the U.S. Copyright Office for artwork on a 3-D object (the 3-D object being Mike Tyson’s head). Warner Bros. and Whitmill settled outside of court, and there was no official decision.

More recently, artists who tattooed Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have filed suits against the maker of the video game NBA 2K16 for using their tattoos in the game. The gaming company could have been liable for damages in the billions considering how well the game sold, except that the images were registered as copyright material after the game had been released, and thus, the makers of NBA 2K16 were not liable for the damages.

kobe bryant, lebron james, copyright tattooThe makers of the game got lucky in this instance. Other people haven’t gotten away so easily, which brings up some questions. Who owns the artwork on your body? Do you own it, or does the artist own it? The law on this issue is opaque to say the least. The Art Law Journal states that “U.S. Copyright law protects original works of authorship by assigning certain protections, or rights, to creators. In order for something to be given copyright protection, the original work must be fixed in a tangible medium, with a minimal degree of creativity.” This means the artist who created the original design has rights to it, and that person can file a suit against you if it is recreated without permission.

This also means that tattoo artists have to be careful, because if they tattoo an image that is copyrighted, they could end up responsible for compensating the original artist for using their work. It’s a tricky web of responsibility, but chances are you as a client won’t run into any problems as long as you don't try to make any money off of the tattoo design; you just have to be alright with the fact that you don’t own the rights to the image on your own skin unless you designed it yourself. To get more info on copyright law or register your work for copyright protection, check out the U.S. Copyright Office website.