Tattoos – A New Frontier in Copyright Law

Tattoos, an ancient art that has enjoyed a modern renaissance over the past few decades especially as this type of body modification becomes more and more mainstream and socially acceptable. Among the groups of people currently drawn to getting tattoos, it seems professional athletes rank highly on the list. Names such as LeBron James, Mike Tyson, and David Beckham come to mind when thinking about famous sports figures with some “ink”. In addition to worrying about getting injured or losing a high paid contract, athletes now need to begin to think about the possibility of getting sued over their body art for copyright infringement.

Successful professional athletes have become synonymous with becoming the “face” for major brands such as Nike and Adidas and now even more so with video games. As these games become more and more realistic with each new release and updated gaming system, the players on screen become more detailed and now look exactly like the player in real life. With this improvement for gamers comes problems for the tattooed players. Tattoo artists have begun to file lawsuits against these players and the game makers for copyright infringement on their tattoo designs. They claim their designs are being featured prominently on the players in the games and as a result the artists are not being justly compensated.

One of the more recent cases to pop-up involves a recent Ultimate Fighter Championship (UFC) video game that was released. Mixed martial arts fighter Carlos Condit was featured in the game along with his ribcage lion tattoo. The Phoenix based artist who had tattooed Condit is now suing the UFC video game maker for copyright infringement. Historically these types of cases have been settled out of court such as when Warner Brothers was sued by the tattoo artist who had inked Mike Tyson’s face over the tattoo’s imitation on actor Ed Helm’s face in the movie Hangover II.

As these cases have been increasingly popping up over the past few years, the National Football League Players Association is now encouraging its players to get signed copyright waivers from their tattoo artists before going under the needle. Since these cases thus far have been mostly settled out of court, tattoo copyright infringement still remains largely uncharted territory. While there really is no question that tattoos meet the criteria needed to qualify under current copyright laws, the real question is how much of these rights are given to the customer once the tattoo has been completed.

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