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Tattoos are pieces of art, and these artworks can come from classic templates, tattoo artists, regular artists, real-life icons, sports teams or can be out of your own imagination.

You really can get anything your heart desires when it comes to your own tattoo.

But is there a problem with ownership of tattoos and is there such thing as copyright?

We’ll take a brief look below:

What is copyright?

Copyright is like patenting an invention or owning the royalties of a song. When you produce art, and money is made from the art, it legally gives the producer a right of ownership, especially to any money gained from it.

How much money is gained and how responsible that art is for making that gain can lead to legal grey areas. For example, was your art playing a supporting role? It’s a bit like using a sample in a song, or say a celebrities tattoo featuring in a music video.

But who owns the copyright for the tattoo, you or the artist?

As the artist is the one who will design and apply the tattoo, they are considered the owners of the copyright, even if you physically own the tattoo itself.

Of course, there is also the issue of the tattoo artist giving you an already copyrighted imaged like a football crest or a TV character. In that case the ‘fair use’ aspect of copyright comes into play, which we’ll explain below.

 

Copyright and the tattoo artist

According to US law, copyright protection exists for original works in any tangible medium of expression that can be perceived, reproduced or communicated.

In Ireland copyright law, the creator of the artwork is usually the owner of copyright. However, when a work is commissioned, the copyright may be transferred to the commissioner depending on the terms of the contract.

Copyrights always remains with the artist even when the physical work is sold except stipulate otherwise in writing.

Of course, someone’s skin would fall under a tangible medium and their tattoos can potentially be reproduced through photography, videos, or even video games.

The big question though is about originality and whether the artist has created the design themselves.

If so, then it’s possible the tattoo artist can register their original design and then get customers to sign a release, thereby copyrighting the image and owning any monetary gain from its reproduction.

Now that rarely happens, and it doesn’t really need to happen when dealing with ordinary punters, but it can become an issue if the person receiving the tattoo is famous.

Indeed, recently the NFL Players Association requested that all their football player get releases from their tattoo artists in case that organisation infringes copyright through their imagery and merchandise.

Copyright and the individual receiving a tattoo

For the likes of you and me, having something like a Mickey Mouse tattoo on your ankle would probably be considered what they call ‘fair use’. For although Disney would not agree to you having it, if you are not sporting it for personal monetary gain then chances are they are not going to sue you for breaching copyright.

What about artists incorporating tattoo art?

Again, artists, photographers etc need to be as careful as celebrities when incorporating someone else’s original tattoo design in their work. Releases should be signed to prevent being taken to court.

Have tattoos caused copyright issues before?

Yes, in the movie, Hangover II, one of the actors sported an identical tattoo to the one Mike Tyson has on his face. This caused the original tattoo artist to sue Warner Bros as he had a release signed by Tyson.

However, the case was settled out of court, so unfortunately there is no official precedence to guide us.

What does this mean for me?

Unless you’re planning on becoming famous then you shouldn’t worry too much about copyright when it comes to your own tattoos.

However, if you’re lucky enough to become a celebrity and we’ve done your tattoo here at the Black Hat, maybe you should call to see us so that we can give you a release from to sign!?

If you do have any more questions around this topic, feel free to call into see us or get in touch.