from the ink-blot-test dept
Are tattoos covered under copyright law? Yeah, probably. But also, hey, maybe not. But if yes, how much control does the artist get to exert over depictions of the copyrighted tattoo? After all, it's on somebody's skin. And, hey, that somebody might be famous, like an athlete, who might then be depicted in video games about that sport. If so, then we get to find out if depictions in artistic works, such as video games, would fall under fair use and/or First Amendment provisions. It seems nobody is actually sure how to answer these questions, because what few cases have been brought before the court all appear to have ended in settlements and low-level court rulings.
Which, I suppose, is why they seem to keep on a-coming. The latest is a company named Solid Oak Sketches, which claims to own the copyright on the tattoo designs appearing on the bodies of several NBA players, including LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and DeAndre Jordan. The company has recently filed a copyright infringement suit against Take-Two Software, makers of the NBA2K franchise.
Solid Oak is suing Take-Two Interactive Software and other companies associated with the videogame NBA 2K16 for unauthorized reproductions of those tattoo designs. The question over whether tattoo designs are copyrightable has never been fully decided by a court, as acknowledged in the new lawsuit. Victor Whitmill's lawsuit against Warner Bros. over Hangover 2 settled as has other disputes including one by a tattoo artist, Christopher Escobedo, who inked a UFC fighter and later asked a bankruptcy court to determine the value of his tattoo claim against videogame publisher THQ.Not only that, but when combined with a First Amendment argument, it's difficult to see exactly why tattoo artists should hold any kind of sway in these cases. The depiction of the players has been licensed by the NBA Players Association, after all, and the tattoos faithfully reproduced within the game are a part, albeit a small part, of that image. I'm struggling to understand why Solid Oak's quarrel is with the game-makers and not the NBAPA. But even then, the idea that players' rights to license their own images might be stilted by what is essentially a form of voluntary branding, a la cattle, is insane.
On one hand, copyright law protects original works of expression fixed in a tangible medium. In the Whitmill case, before it settled, the judge commented, "Of course tattoos can be copyrighted. I don't think there is any reasonable dispute about that." An opinion was never issued, however. In the THQ case, Escobedo was awarded $22,500 for his lion tattoo. Then again, it could be argued that tattoo appropriation in an expressive work is de minimus.
As it happens, I am a player of this particular franchise. The tattoos add to the ambiance and realism of the player depictions, but they aren't in any way central to the game. Arguing otherwise is silly. Yet, because LeBron James was featured on the cover, the lawyers for the plaintiff argue that the tattoos are "the face" of the game, thus arguing for higher damages than the Escobedo case. Note that the tattoo on LeBron James' arm in question is a portrait of his son. They had previously asked for just over $1.1 million in a demand letter for a perpetual license.
As in most other similar cases, I would expect Take-Two to settle, but I truly hope they do not, because it's way past time that we get some clarity on whether or not tattoo artists can hold hostage likeness rights in this way.