Take-Two Says Tattoo Artist Can't Get Statutory Damages Because He Only Registered Copyright In 2015
from the hmmm dept
Back when I first wrote about the copyright lawsuit between a tattoo artist and Take-Two Software, makers of the highly successful NBA2K basketball series, over the faithful depiction of LeBron James' image including his ink, I had been hopeful that perhaps this case could be a step towards resolving whether fair use applies when presenting images of people with tattoos in creative works. And that might still happen, but the defense Take-Two has decided to start things off with won't do the trick. Rather than asserting the work's status as fair use, the video game maker has led with a challenge to whether the tattoo artist can claim statutory damages based on when he had registered the copyright for the tattoos in question. It's a play on a technicality, one which seems to strangely play on what counts as an independent work.
Solid Oak Sketches had sued for damages nearing $1.2 million, claiming eight works had been infringed upon in the game NBA 2K16, including tattoo designs for LeBron James and two other players. According to Take-Two's most recent filing with the court, Solid Oak Sketches registered the copyright for those tattoos in 2015. The game company's argument is that it has been depicting those players and their tattoos since 2013, therefore there is precedent that statutory damages are not in play.
These claims for damages, however, are precluded by 17 U.S.C. §412. As is clear form the face of the Amended Complaint and its attachments, Take-Two has depicted Mr. James, Mr. Martin, and Mr. Bledsoe -- and their tattoos -- in its NBA videogames since at least 2013. This is years prior to the registration of the tattoos with the U.S. Copyright Office in June and July 2015... Here, where the same work has allegedly been infringed by the same defendant in the same manner since 2013 -- long before registration -- binding Second Circuit precedent dictates that statutory damages and attorneys' fees are unavailable.
In other words, because the complaint is over infringement that is essentially the same as has been occurring two years prior to the registration, precedent indicates that statutory damages and attorneys' fees should not apply. It's an interesting argument, though I wonder if it isn't without its pitfalls. Does Take-Two mean to suggest that in some way each years' NBA 2K game is not a separate work and publication. I am sure that is not what they are trying to argue, but arguing that the depiction of individual players within the game are essentially the same depiction for the purposes of combating this action leads us down that path.
Regardless, it does certainly seem to demonstrate that whatever harm Solid Oak Sketches wants to claim in their suit seems silly. Were it so injurious, it brings the question as to why it didn't act to protect itself in all the years previous in which similar alleged infringement is supposed to have occurred. Did it suddenly only become a problem in 2016?
The filing also makes it clear that Take-Two plans to also attack the underlying nature of the infringement claim in the future, which likely means it will assert a fair use argument. I hope it does. That would be the more important precedent to set here.