Academic journal article Iowa Law Review

The Inky Ambiguity of Tattoo Copyrights: Addressing the Silence of U.S. Copyright Law on Tattooed Works

Academic journal article Iowa Law Review

The Inky Ambiguity of Tattoo Copyrights: Addressing the Silence of U.S. Copyright Law on Tattooed Works

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

Although the law of copyrights is a well-established and codified field, there are a handful of innovative sub-categories that remain ambiguous and unaddressed by courts in the United States. Due to an ever-changing, rapidly evolving society, new areas grow and become prevalent enough to create unforeseen issues as the law struggles to catch up. One incredibly topical example, and the focus of this Note, is the application of copyright law to tattoos, specifically in the context of their depiction on celebrities in various forms of media.1

Professor Yolanda M. King2 briefly describes the societal pattern and impact of the growth and change in attitude toward tattoos:

At one time, tattoo artists and individuals with tattoos were associated with criminals, men in the military, or risqué underground social classes. Today, a young generation enjoys the acquisition of symbolic body art. The demand for tattoo art has transformed the nature of consumerism in this industry, and is therefore changing the perception of the industry and the appeal of its artwork in the eyes of the media and other businesses.3

In the mere five years since King's article, tattoos have become even more common, and their continuous widespread growth has brought attention to the relevant legal implications. This Note focuses solely on the issues that arise when tattooed celebrities are depicted in various media such as video games or movies.4 The notoriety and high-profile nature of famous athletes, musicians, and actors creates a host of problems unique to their industries. As a result, this Note will not address the concerns of the tattooed average person.

The increase of tattooed celebrity athletes is particularly problematic when those athletes are prominently featured in video games, an industry that is systematically improving its graphics so the depiction of real-life figures becomes increasingly realistic. The recent spark of tattoo-related copyright infringement litigation highlights the issues that arise from reproductions of tattoos of inked public figures in various media forms, yet this area of the law remains devoid of any published court rulings. The few cases that have been brought either settle or are dismissed, resulting in the courts' continued silence on issues surrounding copyrighting tattoos.

This Note laments the lack of court rulings on tattoo-related copyright lawsuits, expresses concern over the continued ambiguity of the law in this area, and proposes a solution for creating a more structured, standardized approach to tattoo copyrights. Part II provides a brief introduction to the relevant, general concepts of the law of copyrights, moves into a discussion of the copyrightability of tattoos, and finishes with an examination of some tattoo-related lawsuits, including an in-depth discussion of the most recent and viable tattoo copyright case. In doing so, this section hopes to highlight the common issues and elements that arise in tattoo copyrights. Part III identifies the problems associated with unclear copyright laws for tattoos. Next, Part IV proposes a number of statutory additions for Congress to adopt and fit within the current copyright framework that explicitly address tattoos. Finally, Part V concludes.

II. Copyright Law, Tattoos, and Celebrity Portrayal in Various Media

Before tackling the more specific copyright issues surrounding depictions of tattoos on celebrities portrayed in media, Section A reviews some general background information on copyrights. Section B applies these relevant, general rules of copyright law to tattoos and discusses the legal profession's common attitude toward the copyrightability of tattoos so that, despite the absence of a court ruling, this Note can proceed on the assumption that tattoos do enjoy legal protection. Then, Section C tracks the development of the question at hand by summarizing the background of the portrayal of tattooed celebrities in various forms of media, primarily including video games. …

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