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
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?