Who owns your tattoos? On the surface, it seems like a silly questions; there are too many tattoo artists and too many tattooed people to keep track of any kind of ownership or copyright infringement issues, but recently the NFL has brought up an interesting angle at a potentially ongoing dispute over the use of tattoos as “intellectual property”.
The presence of inked athletes isn’t anything new. Over the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve seen an increasing amount of professional sports figures go under the needle on a large scale. Because of the daily mainstream sports coverage across the nation, the fully tatted athletes are always in our line of sight, with their ink often being the so closely tied to their public perception and identity.
When Mike Tyson’s face tattoo was replicated onto Ed Helms’ character in “The Hangover 2”, Victor Whitmill, “author” of the original tattoo, filed a lawsuit against Warner Bros. alleging that he owned the copyright to the design - the case eventually settled out of court, but raised a very interesting discussion, and something that the NFL is growing very concerned about.
Recently, after making headlines that they would hire gang tattoo experts, the NFL Players Association has advised all players to be sure that their tattoo artists sign a release form or a “work for hire” agreement, in order to relinquish any and all “intellectual” rights to the licensing agreements of the player. This essentially means that should the Supreme Court rule tattoos as property of the tattoo artists, similarly to an image or text on paper, that their case would have no weight in court, as they have relinquished their copyright.
The main concern is the replication of these athletes tattoos via trading cards, films, video games, and other visual mediums. Take for example the recent Yahoo! Fantasy Football commercial where San Francisco 49ers star, Colin Kaepernick is seen getting tattooed by Johnny Quintana and two other tattoo artists. Kaepernick, who considers his tattoos a part of his identity, would presumably be the liability here, as the tattoo artists could create a legal issue for the football league if they were to sue, demanding a cut of the royalties associated with Kaepernick’s merchandise and licensing, where the tattoos are visible of course.
The ruling on this topic remains to be seen, and it could play out a number of ways. If this is an issue the NFL takes seriously, then it might require it’s players require proof that their tattoo artists have relinquished any creative licensing for the tattoos they produce to ensure that no action will be taken, should a third party (trading cards, video games, etc...) use their images. On the other hand, savy tattoo artists might make the most of their opportunity and require some kind of cut of the royalties associated with their brand, and this could spread to other professional sports organizations as well.
It’s hard to imagine that tattoos can cause such a stir. Presumably, once a tattoo is permanently engraved into an athletes (let alone anybody’s) skin, that it “belongs” to anybody other than the person who it’s on - but I wouldn’t put it past the loopholes of the legal system to rule otherwise.