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Tattoo Copyright
- Sep 05, 2018 -

Get permission or just say no to copycatting

Finally, you have decided on the tattoo that you have wanted for a long time, but, can it actually belong to you? Are you certain that you will be the owner of your tattoo? Maybe so, maybe no. In today's world, money buys neither happiness, (although, I would love to test this for myself), nor the rights to some tattoos. Evidently, just because you may want a particular tattoo, you may not have the approval it takes to attain it.

Many tattoos have copyrights unless they are chosen from flash designs, (hundreds of more common tattoos that are regularly on the walls of tattoo shops). Sometimes these flash designed tattoos are made repeatedly on thousands of people before you, yet, many of them are popular for a reason. They are not what this article is about. This is about custom tattoos with copyrights.

A custom tattoo, (one that is made only for you by your artist), changes the status of your tattoo and becomes the intellectual property of your artist. The U.S. Copyright Office states that "copyright protects original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible form of expression". This one sentence is inclusive of skin. If you are working with your tattoo artist for the end result, you both become owners of the copyright. If the artist is the only one involved in the making, he is the sole owner, giving only you, (the client), the right to have it.

Because the law states that your tattoo artist is the owner of your custom tattoo's copyright if you have not collaborated with them, doesn't mean you can't show it and get photographed with it. It does mean however, that you can't use it for commercial use without consent of the creator. Recreating the design for commercial use is a huge mistake sometimes done by celebrities, particularly athletes. End result is their being sued by the tattoo artist. Regardless your status, you know there will be a huge amount of money involved. Much like songs or movies that were downloaded for free, it is the artists' and studios, etc., that have ownership and hold the rights to them. Get their permission first, preferably in writing.

Wanting the same tattoo as a celebrity for yourself? Maybe use it for your business? Without permission? This is copyright infringement. If you recall the Mike Tyson debacle of his tattoo being used in the promotion for the movie 'The Hangover' sequel by Warner Bros, (crazy huh, because they too are in the creative business). Well, they did not get permission...yep, the tattoo artist of Tyson, Victor Whitmill, didn't like this. He claimed, (rightfully so), that Warner Bros. stole his design. On top of that, Tyson had signed an agreement saying that Whitmill alone owned the rights of the tattoo. Clients without celebrity status don't typically have a need to sign a copyright agreement. Clients with more clout on the other hand, should in order to protect themselves and the firms associated with them.

Have you ever heard the saying, 'Never hold company with someone that has less to lose than yourself'? You should also think twice about copying what you like as it is not always flattery, but rather, it can be illegal. Acceptance of the fair use excuse is not typically considered by the courts. Same laws apply to tattooed portraits of celebs because they are public people. You may see them through the work of photographers, movies, and/or commercials, BUT, these portraits are the property of studios. Plenty of copyright laws in there. Mentioning that a person owns the rights of their image(s), will get you exactly no where. Beware, that if you decide to get a tattoo inspired by a living person, you could be opening a door that you are not welcome to enter. Same goes for an existing design owned by a brand or a firm. Arguing free artistic expression and changing the original photo or design may be the only escape of legalities but maybe no escaping expenses such as, attorney fees, time away from work, etc. Making modifications to a tattoo inspired by existing art is opening another can of worms. Your tattoo artist owns the right of his own creations, but, reproducing a living artist's work...would you have problems?

Artists own the copyright of their art. It is always considerate to ask the original artist for permission to use it. If you were to put duplicated prints in books, posters, or your skin, for example, without specific permission, they can/will sue you.  ALWAYS ask the artist for permission before going to your tattoo shop, or ask your tattooist to do it for you, (artist to artist permission can sometimes be better, maybe they know and respect each others work). Tattoo artists are generally happy to see their tattoos being worn, (it's a bit of a walking billboard for them)!

Here is another scenario...what if an artist were to sue both a tattooist and client? Would the client have to have laser removal? Possibly be ordered to pay for the use of the design? Are your pockets deep enough for the fines? Attorney fees? Court costs, those are just a few. You could also be hit up with infringement charges and other charges. Would you prepared to handle that? Some artists are selling their designs to tattoo artists and clients but it is never a good idea to assume.

A note on tattoo copycats. With the internet, it is highly possible for someone to see your tattoo and decide that they want the same. To be honest, the general public isn't aware of copyright issues most likely. Someone may see something they like and want you to recreate it for them. These days, most tattoo artists are not accepting references directly linked to existing tattoos. This way, they are protecting both you and themself. Quality tattoo professionals will not duplicate anothers work out of respect to the originator of the art. Those that cross that line are often not respected in the industry and trash talking gets around, not to mention public posts made about them on the internet. It can kill that artists chance of having success in this career.

To wind this article up, let's just say that, yes, there are times when copycatting can be flattering to some, (cool boots, think I will get a pair). Not in the world of artistry. It is NEVER a good idea to copy, at the very least ask for permission.