Tattoo Artists vs. Actors – Who Owns the Copyright in a Tattoo?

Tattoo artists use skin of their clients as their canvas.  Who owns the copyright, the artist or the actor?

Quick background about Copyright

Legal copyright ownership belongs to a person who creates an original work of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.  This is well established under the United States Copyright Act.

Simply stated, if an individual uses a minimal amount of originality to create a work of art and puts that work into something tangible, such as paper, wood, concrete, a phonograph (this also includes software code and digital files), the creator has copyright ownership in their work.

The copyright owner has the exclusive right to make copies, sell, license, copy and display their work.  They get to make money for their work if a market for the work exists. The copyright owner can also assign their copyright ownership to someone else.

Copyright ownership rights are a bit more complicated, but for this article, these basics provide a background.

Tattoo Artists and Copyright Ownership

Tattoo artists use skin as their canvas. Who owns the copyright, the artist or the actor? By Alexander Kuzovlev (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: By Alexander Kuzovlev (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
What happens if an artist creates an original work of art on someone’s skin?  Specifically, a tattoo?  Who has copyright ownership?  The easy answer is that the tattoo artist does because the artist created an original work of art fixed in a tangible medium of expression, someone’s skin.  But is this the right answer — we are talking about a person, an individual who has the right to completely control their own image.  The right of publicity is a legal right to protect, as well as monetize, their own image.  What happens to those rights if a tattoo artist can claim a copyright interest in someone else’s image?

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Resurrecting Andy Warhol : The Velvet Underground sues The Andy Warhol Foundation Over Use of Banana Artwork

  1. Twenty five years after his death, Andy Warhol’s legacy, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts (“Foundation”), is being sued by the iconic band The Velvet Underground partnership (“VU”) for trademark infringement.  The case is The Velvet Underground v. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, 12-0201, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan), filed on January 11, 2012.  Specifically, VU’s four claims include: (1.) there are no copyrights in the banana design and is requesting such declaratory judgment, (2.) false designation of origin of the banana by the Foundation, (3.) unfair competition by the Foundation under New York common law, and (4.) misappropriation of the alleged trademark by the Foundation. The Foundation is due to respond to VU’s complaint in federal court on or before March 5, 2012.

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Turning Water into Wine – Chinese Piracy Develops a Taste for Fine Wine

When we think of Chinese piracy we think of knock off DVD’s, phones, movies, watches and other digital technologies.  Recently, sales of French wine in China have skyrocketed, sending the price of Bordeaux soaring.  Why? Bordeaux futures have surpassed gold prices and are outpacing the market by nearly 9 times.,s01=1.html#axzz1L4XRHaoP.   It is no wonder that Chinese pirates are now selling fake bottles of Château Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Cadet and Canadian Ice Wines to name a few.  It is estimated that 5% of the secondary wine market is dealing in counterfeit wine.

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