Should Tattoo Artists Be Allowed to Copyright Their Designs?
The Hangover II opened this week despite a lawsuit from retired boxer Mike Tyson's tattoo artist on the grounds that the tat's inclusion in the film constitutes copyright infringement. The tribal style ink is featured on the face of Ed Helms who, along with Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifinakis, must retrace his steps through a completely bizarre, blacked-out night on the town.
The artist, S. Victor Whitmill, believes he should be compensated, while the filmmakers claim their depiction of the tattoo falls under fair use laws regarding parody. Cultist wants to know: Who's right?
Over the weekend, The New York Times reported on the tattoo artist and
his legal action against the budding bromance franchise. The twofold
crux of the case is: 1.) Can tattoos hold copyright? And, if so, 2.) When do depictions of said tattoo violate that copyright? As Times
correspondent Noam Cohen explains, the dispute wanders into the highly
complicated overlapping regions of intellectual property and
The suit isn't frivolous...legal experts say. They contend the case could
offer the first rulings on tricky questions about how far the rights of
the copyright holder extend in creations that are, after all, on someone
else's body. They are questions likely to crop up more often as it
becomes more common for actors or athletes to have tattoos and as tattoo
designs become more sophisticated.
The Times also reported that Tyson -- who is known primarily for his
boxing career but also enjoys racing pigeons -- apparently signed some
sort of tattoo copyright prenup agreeing that "all work, sketches and
drawings related to [the] tattoo and any photographs of [the tattoo]"
belong to the artist.
Warner Brothers has responded by defending its depiction of the tattoo
under the protection of "fair use" in the name of parody. This time
around, we have to side with the millionaire media moguls. The
whole basis of using the tattoo is an inextricable and constant reference
to Mike Tyson.
The Hangover II isn't co-opting Whitmill's design and
presenting it as an original. Just the opposite: their use is a constant
citation of the original owner. The tattoo, an accepted feature of the
eccentric athlete, looks hilarious in contrast with the face and
countenance of Ed Helms. Tyson is the impetus for the entire joke. It's
like someone came up to you and said "Knock Knock" and then responded to
"Who's There?" by biting off your ear.
Furthermore, we wonder if the tattoo's tribal aesthetic blurs the
lines a little more. Despite adorning the face of Tyrson (and now
Helms), the design is of the generic frat tat variety spotted on bods
grooving at a the bro-est quadrants of Bonnaroo. Is someone going to try
to copyright hearts with "Mom" around them? Maybe Mike Tyson should
have gotten a more distinct facial tattoo. Like Gucci Mane's lightening bolt ice cream cone.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Miami and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.