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 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.

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