Own that ink: Tattoo copyrights matter for athletes, sponsors
We have seen and will continue to see lawsuits arise and that inspire tattoo artists to bring about creative theories of copyright infringement against professional athletes who appear in advertisements. At a minimum, professional athletes need to tackle and meet head-on many copyright issues if they wish to avoid costly legal action associated with tattoos.
Conventional wisdom and custom suggests that both the professional athlete and tattoo artist discuss ideas, designs and the eventual artwork prior to the transfer of the artwork to the skin. However, U.S. copyright law denotes that ownership of artwork must be assigned, licensed or written into contract via transferring ownership and there must not be any copying, reproducing, or distributing or publicly displaying copyrighted work without the tattoo artist’s consent.
In the event ownership is not properly transferred, a tattoo artist may file a claim alleging copyright infringement and seek profits, a share of the revenue associated with an advertisement, or an injunction seeking to stop the use of the tattoo in the accused advertisement.
Companies often sign professional athletes to lucrative endorsement contracts for the sole purpose of the athlete delivering brand awareness and consumers assimilating the product with the athlete. As social media continues to explode, advertising budgets are growing and companies are seeking out athletes to market their products. Shoes and various forms of apparel are prime examples of the product tied to the athlete; thus consumers see the athlete and the company as one. The same rule applies to tattoo artist ownership and athletes tied to marketing a product. However, at times, history suggests that rights are not appropriately transferred from the tattoo artist to the individual prior to the marketing campaign surrounding the athlete, resulting in a potential costly litigation.
|A tattoo artist’s lawsuit against Rasheed Wallace (above) is a reminder to all athletes who have visible artistic imagery on their bodies of the importance of design ownership and copyright protection.
So what exactly can be done so that professional athletes are protected when promoting a product in a marketing or advertising campaign and have visible artistic imagery on their bodies?
First, there needs to be a written contract in place stating that ownership was properly transferred or assigned from the artist to the individual, to eliminate risk associated with copyright infringement. Second, in the event that the tattoo happened months or even years ago without a valid transfer of ownership, check with the U.S. Copyright Office for any registrations naming the tattoo artist or business where the tattoo artist works to see whether a transfer of ownership can be obtained. Finally, upon receiving transfer of ownership of the tattoo, the work of art should be registered with the Copyright Office to receive the copyright certificate of registration.
Steven Olenick (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a lawyer, educator and an expert on various sports law issues.