Who Owns Your Tattoos?

Zachary Berger, MJLST Executive Editor

Tattoos are more common today than they have ever been. More than 20 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo, and among millennials nearly 40 percent have at least one tattoo. Most people probably assume that they are the owners of their tattoos. After all, tattoos are part of your body. How can you not own them? However, the answer is a bit more complicated than that. There have been a number of lawsuits relating to tattoo ownership over the years, but a recent one has brought the issue back into the news.

Take-Two Interactive Software is the parent company of 2k Sports and developer Visual Concepts, who create the popular NBA 2K video game series. Solid Oak Sketches is a company that is claiming ownership over a number of tattoos that appear in the game on several prominent players, including LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Take-Two has licenses to the players’ likenesses, but Solid Oak claims they alone have the right to license the tattoos, which appear on the players in the game. Tattoos are very prominent in the NBA, and if the players had to appear without them, it would break the sense of realism the game is attempting to convey.Suits such as this one have occurred before, most notably in 2011 when Mike Tyson’s facial tattoo appeared on Ed Helms in the movie The Hangover Part II. However, all of these cases have settled, leaving tattoo ownership in a murky place.

In order to be eligible for copyright protection, a creation must meet three requirements. It must be a work of authorship, it must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression, and it must be original. It is up for debate whether tattoos meet all of these requirements but many believe they do.

The more interesting question, I think, is once that tattoo is finished, who owns it? Does it belong to the artist or patron? As is frequently the case in the legal field, the answer likely is that “it depends.” The default rule in copyright is that ownership is given to the artist. The University of Minnesota Law School’s own Professor Thomas Cotter is coauthor of one of the earliest and most extensive forays into the question of tattoo ownership. He concluded that there are three possibilities: 1) the artist owns the tattoo in the same way a painter owns what he or she paints on a canvas, 2) the work is a joint work, meaning that “it is prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent copyrightable expression,” or 3) the work is a work for hire. As explained by Timothy C. Bradley of the Coats & Bennet law firm, a “work for hire” applies when the work is 1) prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment or 2) specially ordered or commissioned for use in certain circumstances. A “work for hire” is owned by the party that commissions the work.

Take-Two recently won a dismissal of a potentially large damages claim when Judge Laura Taylor dismissed Solid Oak’s statutory damage claim because the tattoo designs Solid Oak claims ownership to were not registered with the U.S. Copyright Office until 2015, but Take-Two first used them in 2013 with the release of NBA 2k14. In order to be able to obtain statutory damages, a plaintiff must have registered their copyright before the alleged infringement. Solid Oak argued that each new 2K game is a separate instance of infringement, but the judge disagreed.

However, Solid Oak is still able to seek actual damages, so the case will continue. In their answer and counterclaim, Take-Two is relying in particular on the defenses of  de minimis use and fair use. De minimis is Latin for “minimal things” and essentially means that the infringement was insignificant and not worthy of judicial scrutiny. Fair use is an affirmative defense that allows limited copying without the copyright owner’s permission for the purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, etc. The following factors (from 17 U.S.C. § 107) are used to analyze fair use:

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Solid Oak v. 2k Games may be the first tattoo copyright infringement suit to settle on the merits rather than out of court and thus will be a very interesting case to watch going forward. The case is Solid Oak Sketches v. 2K Games and Take-Two Interactive Software, No. 16-CV-724-LTS (S.D.N.Y. filed Feb. 1, 2016).