Chris Anderson

Chris Anderson

Mike Tyson

Michael Beasley

Michael Beasley

Michael Beasley

Michael Beasley

Can You Copyright Human Skin?

Tattoo artists are suing video game makers over the inclusion of athletes' ink. Are they within their rights?

After a tattoo artist inks an athlete's body, who owns that artwork: the athlete or the artist? A few recent lawsuits have made it clear that even though the artist can never (Hopefully! Ew!) physically possess that work, the artist retains the same rights as any other artist who works on contract, whether a painter or sculptor. The Wall Street Journal has an intriguing article examining developments in tattoo copyrights.

With video game technology now able to show minute details of player models, a surprising bit of copyright law has sprung up. Many professional athletes have tattoos, and given that the athletes themselves can afford it, many of those tattoos are custom-designed and closely identified with the player. Games secure the rights to show a player's image, but does that include the tattoo?

Michael Beasley via Wikipedia

Recent court decisions say no, it doesn't. In 2012, tattoo artist Chris Escobedo sued video game maker THQ over some tattoos of his that appeared in a UFC game featuring Escobedo's "canvas," a fighter named Carlos Condit. THQ settled with Escobedo out of court for an undisclosed sum. A year earlier, the tattoo artist responsible for Mike Tyson's now-iconic facial tattoo sued the makers of the movie The Hangover for using a facsimile of that tattoo as a punchline.

There has been very little debate on the point: "Of course tattoos can be copyrighted," the Wall Street Journal quotes U.S. District Judge Catherine D. Perry as saying. Perry presided over the Hangover case. "I don't think there is any reasonable dispute about that," she said. So these days, video game makers actually have to track down the tattoo artist for each player and receive permission to use that artwork in games—or else be forced to remove the tattoos, rendering the players inaccurately clear-skinned.

Read more over at the Wall Street Journal.

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  • The art should legally belong to the person wearing it for life. If this were to go further legally, I think it would fall apart. Because then it can apply across similar fields, just changing up the vocabulary.

    The artist who sculpts my haircut would own my hairstyle. And the esthetician who glues miniature rhinestones onto nails would own the designs on people's fingertips. And the 'prosthetic artist' who replaced your hip join would have the sole right to license your groin.

    Artist is a term being used too loosely today, and everyone can be an 'artist' if they choose to call themselves one. Tattoo artists are definitely artists in a traditional sense, but when they sink ink into someone's skin it is much closer to a typical 'skilled vendor' commercial relationship where the buyer is paying for the service that comes with all the rights.

    If they want to own copyright, tattoo artists should draw it on canvas. Human beings aren't a 'canvas.' They're human beings.