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Tattoos and IP rights: Whose ink is it anyway?

For tattoo artists whose work appears on people who later become famous, should they be compensated for the use of their art? Or does that opportunity end when the client leaves the studio?

Tattoos are becoming more prevalent, making it more likely that the tattoo someone is creating today could be on a movie poster tomorrow.

Often the moment someone gets a tattoo, neither the person who gives the tattoo or the one who gets it knows exactly how the future will pan out for either of them. The person getting the tattoo may have dreams of being famous, but no real idea that it’ll happen. While they may talk about it over the course of the tattoo, the artist may not realize that their client’s “big break” really is right around the corner. But when there’s a preview of a movie with your work in the spotlight, you can’t help but feel a little betrayed. Tattoos are a tremendous forum for creativity and expression, yet the intellectual property rights that may arise in them aren’t always clear.

In this post, we will discuss a Q & A format to address this central question.

What are some examples of the issue?

A high-profile case is the artist who saw his work recreated for a video game, with Lebron James wearing tattoos in the popular NBA games. There was also Mike Tyson’s tattoo that appeared on Ed Helms in The Hangover Part II. In both of these instances, production studios used the tattoos without the permission of the artist.

What should I do about my tattoo?

For people with tattoos, there is little to worry about since, in a situation like this, the person with the ink is typically not involved in the dispute (or has very little involvement). For example, in both the video game and the movie cases, the dispute between the studio and the tattoo artist.

What about the artist?

Even when young Lebron James was dreaming of being an NBA star, he probably wasn’t thinking about all of the things that might come along with it. Like a video game that would have an incredibly accurate representation of him, down to the tattoos. That being the case, your client likely isn’t trying to take advantage of your art; your “canvas” so to speak, just happened to get out of the chair and get famous!

Since many of these cases settle out of court, this is still a legal grey area. While tattoo artists probably appreciate the exposure, they often are not seeing the credit for the work that gives their client that “signature” look. Unfortunately, this is the risk when the art you create is able to get up and walk around. It becomes a lot more difficult to control when and how it gets used.

Artists can, however, continue to raise the issue of studios using their art without permission. The more issues like these arise, the more production companies will have to take tattoo work into consideration.

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