Maori Angry About Mike Tyson's Tattoo Artist Claiming To Own Maori-Inspired Design

from the ownership-society dept

Well, here’s an interesting twist on the lawsuit from Victor Whitmill over the copyright on Mike Tyson’s face tattoo. Many people have pointed out that the design appears to be inspired by the Maori, and it appears that Maori tattoo experts think Whitmill doesn’t deserve anything at all:

Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, author of Mau Moko: The World of Maori Tattoo, described Mr Whitmill’s claims of ownership as insufferable arrogance. “It is astounding that a Pakeha tattooist who inscribes an African American’s flesh with what he considers to be a Maori design has the gall to claim that design as his intellectual property,” she said.

“The tattooist has never consulted with Maori, has never had experience of Maori and originally and obviously stole the design that he put on Tyson.

“The tattooist has an incredible arrogance to assume he has the intellectual right to claim the design form of an indigenous culture that is not his.”

That article notes that a local Parliament member said that it was a “bit rich” for Whitmill to be “moaning about the breach of copyright copied off Maori.” Seems like bringing in a Maori tattoo expert would make for an interesting witness if this ever actually goes to trial…

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Comments on “Maori Angry About Mike Tyson's Tattoo Artist Claiming To Own Maori-Inspired Design”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

He could certainly transfer the copyright, no matter what the relationship.

Tyson would only own the copyright *to begin with* if there were an employee/employer relationship, or if there’s a written work made for hire agreement *and* the work fits into one of nine categories (which it probably doesn’t).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You’re right. Chosen’s statement is just more misunderstanding of the concept of work for hire. You can do “copyright assignment” outside of work for hire. If I ever get a tattoo, I will (and i’ll design my own swirly shit, because frankly, this “cultural Maori design” is something kids scribble in their notebook when they’re bored in class)

PrometheeFeu (profile) says:

And please make an example of this copyfrauder. No reason why this should go one way. All copyfraud cases should involve mindbogglingly large damages against the one who commits copyfraud. If they are a corporation, take their house, their car, sell their children into slavery and burn down their place of worship. Oh… Wait, I was thinking of the Mongolian hordes. Oh well, looks pretty similar anyways.

Mike says:

So what?

The only relevant part of this is the claim that “[t]he tattooist… obviously stole the design that he put on Tyson.”

Influence, inspiration, etc. have no bearing on whether something copyrightable.

Indeed, in this world, if something was in fact “stolen” it implies something to protect in the first place. More to the point, if the allegation is that the artist in fact “stole” something, I assume he is saying that it was copied — I doubt that this person is saying that the artist “stole” the skin and transplanted it on Mike Tyson, but that would make for a much more awesome story.

So then there is a copyright infringement claim inside a copyright infringement complain. For this claim to hold up, they are going to show both access to the original design and substantial similarity to the original design.

Designerfx (profile) says:

Re: So what?

do you have any idea what you’re talking about?

GIS for maori facial tattoos

Notice a similar style?

Or how about Mike Tyson confirming that it’s a Maori tattoo and simply not done yet.

link (dailyfill)

Mike was forced to do something drastic when his boxing career went down the drain and made him a ?has-been.? His answer was getting a Maori warrior facial tattoo, which he claims is not even close to being finished. Our response? Awesome.

fogbugzd (profile) says:

All art is derivative. The only difference with the Tyson tattoo is that it was extremely derivative.

How can Mike Tyson expand copyright law by giving a copyright? If Tyson had also agreed to the artist having ownership of the Brooklyn Bridge it would have no validity. Tyson has no more authority to give a copyright than he has to give away bridges. He could have given away personal rights but he had no authority to give copyright protection.

martyburns (profile) says:

Re: For the Maori its not 'just' a tattoo.

No, I don’t think so, I know a few Maori’s and plenty of whiteys with Maori inspired tattoos. In fact in NZ I would hazard a guess that that sort of tattoo is the most common, I think in this case the professor is just stating that the artists claim is ridiculous and insulting, not that he wants to claim himself or on behalf of insulted Maoris, or is even insulted by Tysons tattoo.

Chargone (profile) says:

Re: Re: For the Maori its not 'just' a tattoo.

mind you, worth remembering some maori folk tried to sue lego for some stupid amount for using a maori Word… as in spelled and pronounced the same… to mean something compleatly different from what it does in maori. in fact, that was part of Why they sued. at least if i remember the incident correctly.

‘course, a few idiots with more money than sense does not an entire race describe.

Joseph Kranak (profile) says:

Quantify Originality?

So, if this ever goes to court, then one question might come down to how original it is; if not original enough, then not copyrightable. But, of course, you can’t quantify originality. So, it’s just going to be up to the completely arbitrary opinion of a judge. One of the absurdities of copyright: creating a yardstick for something completely intangible like originality.

MAC says:


Send him along with Tyson to New Zealand to explain to the Maori why they used a sacred tattoo on Mike’s face…
A warrior’s tattoo is a privilege among the Maori and has to be ‘earned’. What did Tyson do the earn one?
Have them explain it in a Maori village to the village elders with the real Maori warriors in attendance.
Can you say ?well done? Tyson??

John Doe says:

Re: Idiot...

A warrior’s tattoo is a privilege among the Maori and has to be ‘earned’. What did Tyson do the earn one?

I would say being the undisputed heavy weight champ could certainly earn him the title of a warrior. I doubt there are many Maori warriors that could go toe-to-toe with him even now.


Mike42 (profile) says:


Alright, here I’m calling “Bullshit” on damn near everyone (Mr Masnick included). Copyright is supposed to be the SPECIFIC EXPRESSION. Period. “Inspired by” is bogus. Medium (in this case, ink on human skin) is immaterial.
The Warner tat is IDENTICAL to Tyson’s tat. The fact that it’s a Maori style means nothing. If I make a Celtic chain design, does that mean that I can’t copyright that specific work? How about an Egyptian Eye of Horus? “Sorry, that design style is owned by Egypt. No copyright for you!”
Don’t forget, if the artist doesn’t own the copyright, he can’t make it CC. It’s just public domain. Of course, that would instantly make everything public domain, because everything derives from common sources.
I haven’t written anything on this yet, because I tend to think both sides are stupid, unless the artist is suing as a form of advertisement. But it’s completely hypocritical for any Techdirt regulars to say that a style is owned by a culture, and therefore any silmilar expression is copyrighted by that culture.
You may not like copyrights or lawsuits, but keep your arguments clean.

I think I’m going to make myself a Maori-inspired urinal cake.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: WTF???

“The Warner tat is IDENTICAL to Tyson’s tat.”

Actually, I think there are some differences.

The real question will be filtering out the similarities between the Tyson tat and preexisting tats the tattooist based it on or other common themes, and then comparing what remains with the Helms tat.

Mike42 (profile) says:

Re: Re: WTF???

See here:

A quote from the article:
Perry also noted that ?the entire tattoo in its original form was used (not in any parody form), the tattoo was not necessary to the basic plot of the movie, and that Warner Brothers used the tattoo substantially in its marketing of the movie.?

And once again, “Themes” means nothing to the Techdirt regulars who I’m railing against. As I said above, just because I’m borrowing from another culture doesn’t mean I lose the copyright on the specific thing I create. If it turns out that he appropriated the entire tat, that’s a different subject.

On a separate note, the artist’s damages are laughable. He is trying for the bogus “loss of control” derived from the moral copyrights of Europe. Dude, you would put that on anyone’s face for less than $5k. Take a settlement and the fame you just recieved and shut up.

Pseudonym (profile) says:

Re: WTF???

Aside from the factual error (the Warner tattoo is not strictly identical), I think you might be missing some of the background here.

There is a generally acknowledged understanding that the Berne Convention can’t (and admittedly doesn’t seek to) cope with the complex issues raised by indigenous cultural expressions. While New Zealand is a signatory to the Berne Convention, the Maori are not, and the Treaty of Waitangi (Article 2) provides that New Zealand must guarantee full “chieftanship” over all “treasures”. The Maori word taonga includes both tangible and intangible cultural artifacts.

There have been several legal challenges in New Zealand against the inappropriate use of Maori traditional knowledge, cultural expressions and genetic resources which have resulted in changes to NZ law.

Of course, the United States is not a signatory to the Treaty of Waitangi. It is, however, a signatory to a number of treaties with Native American peoples, some of which contain similar provisions (though many of which have been broken beyond repair). Given that it is infeasable for every country to enter into a treaty with every indigenous population on the planet, some kind of global framework is needed. The WIPO is working through the issues as we speak.

So you may be right that under current law, Mike Tyson’s tattoo is copyrighted by the person who did it, but this may only be because current copyright law doesn’t deal with indigenous cultural expressions correctly. It would be a manifest injustice if this case were decided incorrectly just because the WIPO is dragging its heels.

Remember, these Maori cultural experts are not claiming ownership of Mr Tyson’s tattoo (though some objected at the time). All they’re saying is that the tattooist can’t reasonably claim some kind of intellectual property ownership either. Indigenous culture is, generally speaking, not “owned” in the first place.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: WTF???

“this may only be because current copyright law doesn’t deal with indigenous cultural expressions correctly.”

I suspect may Techdirt regulars would think that the current protection (i.e., no legal monopoly whatsoever) is in fact the “correct” way to deal with such works. I think that’s the other commenter’s point. For a group that is often so hostile to copyright, IP, and similar legal protections/rights, they seem to be oddly sympathetic to the notion that a group of people can control others’ use of their cultural artifacts.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: A cross, swastika, a quilting pattern, etc.

And along with that question, let me point you all to this. I’ve bought many of these books. They are collections of native, folk, and historic designs that anyone can use. I am assuming that there are, in fact, royalty-free designs that come from public domain sources.

Dover Design Library

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