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Over the course of the last few years, a strange new legal issue has been emerging in America.  Some tattoo artists are claiming copyright infringement over tattoos that they gave certain people.  Now, let’s be clear; when I say “certain people” I mean celebrities.  Let’s face it, no tattoo artist is going to try and get legal entitlement to a tattoo on the guy who works at your local supermarket or pub.  At least not yet.  What’s happened is that there have been several lawsuits filed against celebrities and Warner Brothers studios themselves for tattoos that appeared in the public eye, without paying the artists responsible any royalties.

‘Late last year, for example, Stephen Allen, a tattoo artist, sued video game maker Electronic Arts and former Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams over a tattoo Allen put on Williams’ bicep. The tattoo appeared on the cover of EA’s “NFL Street” video game. Allen claimed that the reproduction and display of the tattoo violated his copyright.’

‘Allen’s was not the first lawsuit. Others include a 2011 case brought by tattoo artist Victor Whitmill against Warner Bros.The suit was filed just weeks before the release of the hit film “The Hangover: Part II.” In the film, comedian Ed Helms wakes up with a copy of boxer Mike Tyson‘s famous Maori-inspired facial tattoo. Whitmill claimed that Warner Bros. owed him for re-creating the Tyson tattoo. The case was settled for an undisclosed sum.’

On one hand, I can completely identify with the tattoo artists; when multi-millionaires are gaining attention and profiting from your own creation(s), then it does seem a touch unfair that none of these profits are making their way to the artist who helped put the multi-millionaires in that position in the first place.  Prominently displaying an artist’s tattoo in an advertisement of any sort – regardless of whether or not the tattoo in question has anything at all to do with the advertisement, is capitalising on an image.  The original tattoo is a work of art that is helping to create the image being sold by whatever corporate entity.  In the case of Victor Whitmill, Warner Brothers had expressly recreated Whitmill’s tattoo without first asking his permission or paying him any royalties whatsoever.  That’s a case of a major Hollywood studio overstepping their bounds and literally stealing someone else’s work for profit.

EA Games' "NFL Street" showed an illustrated version of Ricky Williams' bicep tattoo.

EA Games’ “NFL Street” showed an illustrated version of Ricky Williams’ bicep tattoo.

On the other hand, as I said before, so far this issue deals entirely with celebrities.  However, as with most nascent laws and legal quandaries, the next few years and incidents of this sort of thing will ultimately set the legal precedent.  The last thing that I want to see (and I’m sure that I’m not the only one), is a new era of tattoo in which artists are claiming copyright on every tattoo they place on their clients, regardless of one’s celebrity status.  When a client pays for a tattoo, they are paying for the tattoo – no more, no less.  If the tattooist wants to ensure they make a decent profit off their work, then they should charge what they feel to be a decent amount for said work.  It could be argued that saying your work is being profited off of by a celebrity appearing in an advertisement with his/her tattoos visible is like Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren claiming copyright infringement against celebrities who happen to be wearing their respective clothing lines in advertisements.

Claiming copyright over another person’s flesh moves things into a rather dicey legal area that unfortunately has everything to do with money and nothing to do with art.  As I’ve said, in the case of a corporation attempting to take an artist’s work without paying for it, there should certainly be an avenue of legal recourse for the artist to follow.  Simply seeing one of your tattoos on a celebrity in an advertisement?  Hard to really justify an artist claiming control over someone else’s body.  Let’s not get so carried away with the pursuit of wealth that we forget the real reasons for the art we create, okay?

 

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