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.

About the author

Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer and editor who has written for Popular Science, The Awl, Gizmodo, Fast Company, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. He holds an undergraduate degree from McGill University and currently lives in Brooklyn, because he has a beard and glasses and that's the law.