Intellectual property: Do tattoos belong to artists or wearers?

When people here in New York think of protected artwork, they may think of traditional pieces of art, such as a painting or even a song. Most of them probably wouldn't think of a tattoo design put on another person by an artist. However, that is what a recent civil claim revolved around. It asked whether a tattoo is the intellectual property of the artist who created it or the person who bears it.

The suit came about when video game maker, Take-Two Interactive, was accused of copyright infringement by a tattoo company. The company claimed it held licenses for certain tattoos on professional basketball players, meaning that Take-Two had no right to replicate the tattoos in depictions of the players in its popular video game series "NBA 2K." The suit was first filed back in 2016 but finally received a recent ruling.

The judge ruled that the game maker could show the tattoos. She said they were a very small part of the overall game and that they were now part of the likeness of the players who bore them. She also pointed out that the tattoo company should know that the tattoos would be visible in other media, such as television, commercials, and public appearances. The players had already given the video game company permission to use their likeness, so, the judge decided, that included depictions of the tattoos.

Though this case is particularly unusual, it can serve as a lesson to artists of other mediums. It is imperative that artists of all kinds retain the intellectual property rights to any and all of their creations. Not doing so may result in lost income and the usage of artwork the artist does not condone. Any New York artists interested in protecting their creations may want to consult a copyright law attorney. 

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