This post is courtesy of our law clerk Ashley Franco, an exceptional student at California Western School of Law who just finished her second year:
The answer to the question in the title to this post is the typical lawyerly “it depends.” It is important to distinguish between the ownership rights to the tangible tattoo (the skin itself) and the exclusive rights provided by copyright for the design of the tattoo. The ownership rights to the tangible tattoo (the skin itself) belong of course to the tattoo bearer. However, the “author” of the tattoo (i.e. tattoo artist) may have exclusive copyright rights in the tattoo design.
Under section 101 of the Copyright Act, a creator of original work that is fixed in a tangible medium of expression for more than a transitory duration is given copyright protection for the original elements of the work. A tattoo may be an original work (depending on the design) and of course is fixed to a tangible medium (the body) for more than a transitory duration. Therefore, the copyright doctrine applies to tattoos and may provide the tattoo artists with copyright protection for original designs.
Copyright protection grants the copyright owner six exclusive rights, which he or she may transfer: (1) the right to reproduce (2) the right to prepare derivative works (3) the right to distribute (4) the right to perform the work publicly (5) the right to display the work publicly, and (6) the right to perform the work publicly by digital transmission.
To determine the ownership of the exclusive rights, it is important to determine who is the “author” of the tattoo. The “author” may be the tattoo artist, the tattoo bearer, or both if they both contributed to the tattoo design. The “author” may also be the tattoo artist’s employer, through a doctrine known as the “work made for hire” doctrine.
Most tattoo copyright infringement cases are filed by tattoo artists and are settled. Therefore, the courts have yet to decide what the tattoo bearer has the right to do with his or her tattoo. In Whitmill v. Warner Brothers (a tattoo infringement case), Judge Perry did comment that tattoos could be copyrighted, and that there was a high likelihood of Whitmill prevailing on the merits. In Whitmill, Victor Whitmill designed the famous tribal tattoo for Mike Tyson, which he had tattooed on his face. An exact copy the tattoo later appeared in the movie “The Hangover II”, on Ed Helms’s face. Thereafter, Whitmill filed suit seeking monetary damages for copyright infringement of the Tyson tribal tattoo, and a preliminary injunction preventing the release of the film. However, the parties settled before the court could weigh in on the application of the copyright doctrine to tattoos.
As tattoos have gained popularity, more suits have arisen by tattoo artists claiming copyright infringement. Many of these suits are against the NFL and NBA and/or their marketing partners because athletes’ tattoos are copied and displayed on an array of media (i.e. posters, video games). Consequently, companies are now implementing contracts in which the tattoo artist waives his or her rights to copyright.
We expect that so-called “tattoo infringement” litigation will increase as tattoos continue to gain popularity and prominence among celebrities, athletes and common folk, and tattoo designs become more elaborate and unique. Therefore, for a person spending a lot of money getting a tattoo or a tattoo artist developing unique and original tattoo designs, it is a wise investment to have an attorney draft a contract to clearly state who owns what rights to the tattoo.