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The Copyright on Mike Tyson's Face

By: Jim Dossey, MS, MBA, JD

A copyright is a form of intellectual property protection that protects the authors of "original works of authorship," including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. Most people have seen copyrights on books, music, or artwork… but what about tattoos? According to Judge Catherine D. Perry in a 2011 federal court hearing involving the tattoo on Mike Tyson's face, "of course tattoos can be copyrighted… I don't think there is any reasonable dispute about that."

In the case involving Mike Tyson's tattoo, the tattoo artist, S. Victor Whitmill, sued Warner Bros. for copyright infringement for the use of the tattoo in the movie The Hangover: Part II. In the movie, a character gets intoxicated, passes out, and wakes up with a replica of Tyson's tattoo on his face.

Under copyright law, the copyright of a work of authorship immediately becomes the property of the author who created the work. A major exception to copyright law, however, is a concept called "fair use." Under the "fair use" doctrine, someone can lawfully copy another for educational purposes, reviews, comments, criticisms, etc.

In the Tyson tattoo case, Warner Bros. argued that the depiction of Tyson's tattoo was simply a parody and protected under fair use. Judge Perry disagreed, stating that there was "no change to this tattoo or any parody of the tattoo itself." The case was eventually settled out of court.

The Tyson case is widely credited as opening up tattoo art as fertile ground for copyright infringement lawsuits. When the tattoo artist tattoos someone, they give an implied license to that person to the tattoo for life. However, copyright infringement may occur when someone copies the tattoo on someone else… For this reason, The National Football League Players Association has even warned players to obtain copyright waivers from their tattoo artists in the event their likenesses are reproduced in advertisements, video games, or other media.


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