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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.
Important Links & Resources
UMass Med. School Copyright LibGuide
Copyright resources and basics LibGuide. This goes over the necessary resources in understanding copyright on a more nuanced level.
Copyright Government Resource
The federal copyright page for links pertaining to education and multi-purpose resources for copyright.
Copyright Law in the USA
The actualized legal title pertaining to copyright law in the United States
Creative Commons Licenses
The Creative Commons website "about" page explaining the purpose of the Commons, how and when they are used, and the different types of licensing available and their respective definitions.
Public Domain Date Chart
This is a website created by Cornell explaining copyright terms and public domain in the United States. After a certain amount of time, works automatically become public domain.
Fair Use Guide
A simple guide created by Stanford explaining what Fair Use is in its simplest form.
Payment in Credit: Copyright Law and Subcultural Creativity
"One much-discussed case in the world of tattoo enthusiasts involves Amina Munster, who received copyright registrations for a large tattoo featuring a skull, crossed blades, and the words "Dead Men Tell No Tales." Munster registered her tattoo and the drawing it was made from after she discovered that another tattoo artist had copied it for someone else. The artist who inked her tattoo based his design on images from Pirates of the Caribbean."
The Illusion of the Commons
" Conventional wisdom states that intellectual property or some other barrier to imitation is a prerequisite for intellectual production: without it, innovators will decline to place capital at stake. But this proposition appears to be incompatible with markets where innovation proceeds with weak or no intellectual property rights and imitation is widespread.' For example, copyrights over music are routinely violated, yet music production does not appreciably slow; software is widely pirated or voluntarily released with minimal or even no protections against copying, yet product releases continue apace; property rights over scientific theories and findings are nonexistent, yet research proceeds forward."
Entertainment and Sports Law: The Copyright Implications of Tattoos
"As works of art, tattoos fall within the realm of copyrights. However, the copy-rightability of tattoos, the ownership of these rights, and the corresponding application of existing copyright doctrine to tattoos are still largely issues of first impressions for the courts. For the reasons discussed below, although it is likely that Whitmill did indeed own the copyrights to the Tyson tattoo, it is unlikely that he would have been able to sustain substantial damages from Warner Brothers had the case gone to trial."
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.