Lawsuit. Art on Body. Tattoo.

Anyone who follows social trends knows that tattoos are the rave today, particularly among the millennial generation. But can your tattoo, the art on your body, open you up to a lawsuit, particularly for copyright infringement?

The answer may come as a big surprise to many.

Figures show that more than 20 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo, and among millennials, the figure jumps to more than 40 percent. If the tattoo is on your body, you may believe that it belongs to you, but in many cases that may not be true.

A slew of recent lawsuits by both tattoo artists and corporations should serve as a warning, especially if the tattoos in question are used to market products and services. In reality, a tattoo can meet the legal requirements for copyright protection.

Kobe Bryant. LeBron James.

A group of tattoo artists who rendered their services to high profile athletes such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James recently filed copyright lawsuits against the video game developer that created NBA 2K. The tattoos they created on Bryant and James were used on the digital recreations of the athletes. The case is still pending in the courts.

Several years ago, the tattoo artist who created Mike Tyson’s famous face tattoo filed a copyright lawsuit against Warner Bros. Entertainment. A film produced by Warner Bros. showed a character getting a facial tattoo deemed “almost identical” to Mike Tyson’s. The artist and the film company settled the suit before the court could rule on it.

But regular, everyday people don’t have anything to worry about – right?

Wrong, people with tattoos of trademarked cartoon characters and the like are also technically susceptible to trademark infringement suits. In 2013 a New York coffee shop owner received a cease and desist letter from The New York State Department of Economic Development due to a tattoo he had on his fist, which the agency claimed violated their copyright on the iconic I ❤ NY logo. The coffee shop owner came to terms with NY State agreeing how his tattoo can be photographed and displayed.

The lesson is clear. If you are a business or an individual, you may be open to copyright lawsuits for displaying or using tattoos for marketing purposes. Yes, times are changing, and that means we need to stay informed on how, when and where we can use copyrighted material. Including “body art.”

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