For Expungement, Rights Reinstatement or Small Business needs, Contact Essent Law today (503) 512-0501

Tattoo Copyright Laws in Oregon

Tattoo Artist Tattooing on Male Customer

Tattoo Copyright Laws in Oregon

Tattoo Artist Carefully Writing on Man's Arm

Answer: Yes.

“Of course tattoos can be copyrighted.”

–Judge Catehrine D. Perry, U.S. District Court Judge, Whitmill v. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. (2011)

In copyright law, there is nearly always a distinction to be made between the “thing” and the “copyright” itself. You might think of the “thing” as  the canvas and the copyright as the expression of that idea (“the picture, design, painting, or the content” that is imprinted on the canvas).

To illustrate: A person happened to get a hold of a Mark Twain manuscript, and later wished to make some money. Could he sell the actual manuscript? Yes. Could he reprint, reproduce, the content? No. Why? He owned the manuscript (the thing, the canvas), but not the copyright (the content, the idea, the expression).

The same principle is at work with a tattoo vis-a-vis the copyright. The artist owns the “content” and the design. But what if “the canvas” is a person?

The Hangover II Suit – Copyright Protects a Tattoo Artist through the Artist’s Copy-Rights 

A recent case is illustrative. A Missouri tattoo artist, Mr. Whitmill, created and inked Mike Tyson’s now-famous tribal tattoo. The movie studio who produced Hangover II used the tattoo design throughout the movie one of its starring characters played by Ed Helms (well known as Andy Bernard from Office Space). The movie poster and marketing materials displayed the tattoo. You see, Mike Tyson was the “canvas” and owned that. The case is analogous to a painter who sells a copy of the painting to someone, but who still retains the copyright to the work. Or a computer programmer who sells an application or software, but who retains “the rights” to the computer program.

There’s several lessons and takeaways from this case of which artists, creators, or designers are well advised to practice regarding copyright:

1. Use contracts to define property rights with your clients, customers, or those who buy your work. The tattoo artist did this at the time, and expressly retained ownership of the copyright by contract. This was a smart move because it clearly defined where the tattoo artist and his client, Mike Tyson, stood and who owned what; it created a reliable record for future use (here, litigation, though it was also proof for marketing and portfolio purposes). Investing in an attorney as a business expense (which you can write off) to draft an Oregon business contract is a very good investment because it’s the equivalent of having a rental agreement for a landlord. The copyright is your property, and your ROI and your ability to control and protect your art depends on how you manage that property.

2. Copyright Protections can be quite strong, protecting artists and their work–even against very powerful players, such as hollywood movie studios and large entities. The artist was able to settle this case for undoubtedly a good sum. Copyright protections can also and often include temporary or permanent injunctions (a judicial order that restrains a person from taking an action that invades the legal rights of another–or colloquially put: stop, drop, shut ‘em down, open up shop).

3. What the artist could have done better, legally speaking: Because this tattoo design was for a famous person, the tattoo artist should have registered it from the get-go. Registration of a copyright has significant advantages. If the copyright owner or holder registers it before the copyright is infringed, he or she are entitled to minimal damages of $3,000 (“Statutory damages”), and importantly, attorneys fees. This case settled with each side assuming their own fees, but this may well have changed if the case had proceeded further. Copyright registration is relatively cheap, costing $35 for an online application and $65 for a paper application, and usually taking 3–5 months to complete the process–in the meantime you can publish or distribute your work, and do not have to wait for the registration before taking your work to market.

Essent Law offers counsel, advice, and representation to artists, designers, creators, entrepreneurs, and small-to-medium sized businesses. Contact us today regarding how we might assist you protect or market your art and other creative expressions.

Very truly yours,

Timothy D. LaBadie | Attorney at Law | J.D., M.B.A.

Copyright © 2017 - Essent Law LLC