Tattoo Copyright and Design Ownership

  • Written By Dan Hunter on November 10, 2020
    Last Updated: November 10, 2020

The idea that your tattoo might not belong to you may seem strange, mainly because a tattoo is intrinsically a part of a person’s physical being. However, tattoo copyright infringement is all too real. 

It’s vital to consider your prospective tattoo’s copyright before committing to your initial tattoo session. Doing so could help you avoid any unwanted legal action.


What Is Tattoo Copyright?

Understanding tattoo copyright begins with understanding basic copyright theory and practice. A copyright is a legal declaration of intellectual property. It establishes that creative works have a specific creator, and it imbues this creator with full rights regarding the replication and distribution of that work.

For example, many superheroes and cartoon characters are protected by copyright laws. This prevents other animators, cartoonists, and artists from using specific names, ideas, and superpowers to recreate an original image and present it as their own. 

While this practice can be creatively limiting, it also encourages artists to come up with new ideas and characters consistently. Tattoo artists are similarly encouraged to create, sketch, and ink original designs

Many of the most gifted tattoo artists work from original photographs or unique hand-drawn sketches. Doing this not only allows them to practice their drawing and inking skills, but it also prevents artists from incurring any legal wrath due to unapproved copyrighted image use.

What Is a Copyrighted Tattoo?

For all intents and purposes, a copyrighted tattoo is any tattoo that shows an image that is a direct recreation of the copyrighted material. If you were to take a screenshot of your favorite anime character and ask a tattoo artist to perform a faithful recreation of that image, you could be sued by the creators of that anime.

Any image belonging to a copyrighted movie, television show, book, or another form of media translated into tattoo form is a copyrighted tattoo. The only way for artists to avoid legal persecution after giving such a tattoo is to receive permission from the copyright holder before getting to work.

For this reason, many tattoo artists will refuse to work with copyrighted material. A popular suggestion given to clients requesting copyrighted tattoos is to change the original image’s design or look. Getting creative with an idea and adding or subtracting various pieces could help all parties avoid unwanted litigation.

This practice has led to many exciting and unique tattoos. After all, you may not be able to get the Miami Dolphins logo imprinted on your arm legally, but you can get a tattoo of a dolphin with a football helmet, playing near some palm trees. 

Tattoo artists that produce original images may also copyright their work. This means that other artists cannot recreate their tattoos without permission. 

Where Can You Get a Copyright-Free Tattoo?

If you’re thinking about getting inked for the first time and you’re struggling to decide on a design, it may be helpful to speak with friends or relatives that have tattoos. Not only will they be able to recommend specific artists, but they can share their design process with you.

Nearly all reputable tattoo artists refuse to perform tattoo work that may result in copyright infringement. As such, finding an artist to give you a copyright-free tattoo isn’t nearly as challenging as it may seem. The more significant issue is deciding on an attractive design that is within the artist’s capabilities. 

If you have your heart set on getting the perfect character-based tattoo, you’ll want to ensure that your chosen tattoo artist is capable of performing work in a similar style. Photo-realistic tattoos tend to be the most challenging and time-consuming types of copyright-free tattoos. They can also be more expensive than more straightforward tattoos. 

Slightly more cartoonish tattoos that utilize plenty of colors can also require multiple sessions. However, this style often allows for more creativity and fun. If you’ve ever dreamed of getting a tattoo of a French taco riding a unicorn over a leprechaun, a cartoonish style is likely to lend itself well to your design. 

Additionally, if you’ve drawn the design for your tattoo, you could opt to protect the tattoo under copyright in your name. Naturally, you’ll also want to confer with your tattoo artist before applying for copyright protection.

Can You Be Sued Over a Copyrighted Tattoo?

The short answer to this question is yes. You can be sued for copyright infringement if you choose to give or receive a tattoo of a copyrighted image. 

You may have seen some fun and exciting tattoos that blur the line between copyright infringement and creative repurposing of intellectual property. This doesn’t mean that your next tattoo should also walk this fine line.

No matter what kind of tattoo you’re interested in getting, there’s a way to follow through without infringing on any copyright laws. If you understand how to avoid tattoo copyright infringement, you can get the ideal tattoo and prevent thousands of dollars (or more) in legal fees and fines.

How to Avoid Tattoo Copyright Infringement

Creativity plays a large role in avoiding copyright infringement. It’s also crucial to note that most entities sued for tattoo-based copyright infringement are companies that recreate real-world tattoos without the tattoo artist’s consent. 

Consequently, game designers and filmmakers should take special care to receive permission before displaying a tattoo in their work. However, individuals who decide to get tattoos of copyrighted images should know that displaying such tattoos could result in severe lawsuits against them and those who performed them.

Avoiding copyright infringement is as simple as preventing copyrighted images whenever possible. If you’re attempting to make a faithful recreation of a real-life tattoo, you can try to receive permissions before displaying your ink. 

If you aren’t granted permission, you’ll need to rethink your work or recognize that you could be sued. Remember, the ink from a tattoo may be embedded into your skin, but the whole image may belong to someone else, mostly if you don’t opt to use an original idea or sketch.

Conclusion

Is your tattoo copyrighted? There are two simple ways to find out. The first way involves contacting your tattoo artist and asking them if their tattoo designs and work are copyrighted materials. Some artists may hold copyrights over their creative work, limiting your ability to share images of your tattoos without express creator permission.

The second route is more straightforward and only requires you to ask yourself if your tattoo is original and creative or if it is a near-exact recreation of someone else’s intellectual property. If you have a few tattoos featuring your favorite film of television characters or imagery, there’s a good chance that your tattoo could be infringing on a copyright holder’s rights.

Avoiding copyright infringement isn’t as tricky as it may appear. After thinking through your design, you can discuss any potential copyright worries with your artist. They’ll be able to help guide in the right direction.