Is Tat Legal? Tattoo Copyright Explained

Is Tat Legal? Tattoo Copyright Explained

Tattoos are usually considered to be highly personal, from the person who bears the design on their body, to the tattoo artist who takes pride in their art. But who really owns the tattoo? 

In 2017, tattoo artist Jimmy Hayden took video game company Take-Two Interactive to court over their incorporation of digital impressions of his tattoo art in relation to several basketball stars, most notably LeBron James, in the NBA 2K video game series (source). LeBron claims, ‘My tattoos are a part of my persona and identity,’ but actions from the court suggested otherwise. It is reported that Hayden was given the right to seek statutory damages affiliated to the copyright violations carried out by Take-Two. 

Sounds complicated? Not really. Hayden took issue with Take-Two, and not LeBron or other NBA players, because the video game company was actively profiting off his work through the depictions of his art to recreate the likeness of LeBron on-screen. The tattoo may belong to LeBron in terms of personal identity, but it does not belong to LeBron under legal terms working to protect the artistic license of the tattoo artist. 

If you are an owner of a tattoo parlor or a tattoo artist, a brief understanding of copyright protection will allow you to safeguard your original designs and steer clear of copyright infringement challenges. 

Copyright law protects original works of authorship such as books, paintings, films, photographs, architecture, computer programs and technical drawings. The word original must be emphasised as the author’s work may not be eligible for copyright protection should it not meet a baseline of creativity. For example, a tattoo of one’s own name in standard font might not be eligible for copyright protection. 

Under copyright protection, the author is granted the right to be financially reimbursed for the use of their works by third parties. Copyright law also defends the non-economic interests of the author. 

How Can I Protect My Work As A Tattoo Artist? 

Remember, an individual cannot claim infringement of their work unless copyright registration has been undertaken with the relevant IP office. As a tattoo artist, it is up to you to register one-of-a-kind artworks for copyright. This may include a certain style, design or pattern that shows up as a motif in your portfolio. Artistic elements that are recognisably ‘you’ as an artist should be considered for copyright registration. 

On the other side of the coin, it is advisable to obtain legal rights to the artwork not belonging to your own persons prior to tattooing it on a client. Determine if the relevant artwork falls into the public domain, either by nature (e.g. works produced by the government) or expiration of copyright protection. A legal battle is time-consuming, expensive and arduous: It pays in time, money and effort to make sure that you nor your client will land in trouble for the tattoo in question. After all, it is permanent and irreversible! 

You may also choose to include information regarding copyright ownership in your tattoo consent form. Draw up a consent form with guidance from a lawyer and take the time to explain necessary information to clients prior to conducting tattoo work. A consent form will provide tangible evidence which serves to strengthen your position in court. 

Need more answers to your questions? We’re happy to provide them and that’s just the start. Contact us for a free consultation today.

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