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Syracuse University Libraries

Tattoos and Copyright: Copyright Debrief: What is Copyright?

A fool-proof guide to understanding the implications of copyright in the field of tattooing, both for the patron and the artist.

Copyright in a Nutshell

Copyright remains one of the most complex areas of law, particularly in an age where unmediated electronic images are distributed everywhere through social media. This particular page deals with explaining the four areas of copyright -- traditional copyright, creative commons, fair use, public domain -- and how they are related to and impact the understanding of tattoos as a creative possessed object. Ultimately, this page serves to define where tattoos should and can be classified within legal boundaries and terms. 

The purpose of this page is to begin to understand where exactly a tattoo as an art form falls in categorized copyright law. Due to how much copyright has been explained in detail through multiple guides -- both educational and federal -- a list of important links and resources have been included to supplement the material. Important scholarship pertaining to common research questions and arguments have been included as well, which should guide you into thinking about exactly why tattoos and copyrighting is such a complex legal "gray" area. 

Traditional Copyright

Public Domain

Fair Use

Creative Commons

Important Links & Resources

Can I Use It?


Where Do Tattoos Fall?

To make it as simple as possible, for an artist, patron, and any involving party of a tattoo to not be subject to any legal repercussions or copyright violation, the respective image, text, or source of the tattoo must either be an original design, have explicit permissions from the original artist/copyright holder, be of Public Domain, be in compliance with terms of Fair Use, OR -- if relevant and applicable -- be compliant with its Creative Commons licensing.


This LibGuide was created for the purpose of exploring the complexities of copyright law relative to tattooing as an art form. It contains information, research, and links to resources about copyright. The information provided here should NOT be construed as legal advice. For legal advice, please consult an attorney.