Call it my obsession, but I've been following the Mike Tyson tattoo copyright (almost as intensely as Beyonce's career) because of its potential impact on the rights of tattooists to defend their art from others who wish to profit from it.
For background, see my first post on it (with some general copyright info) here and the update here.
This post looks like my final update on the case because, yesterday, The Hollywood Reporter published the news that a settlement had been reached between Missouri tattooist, S. Victor Whitmill, and Warner Bros. Whitmill sued Warner Bros. for copyright infringement over its use of his facial tattoo design for Mike Tyson, which was prominent in The Hangover II film. The article stated:
The settlement was no surprise. As I predicted in my posts, these type of cases do tend to settle, and it was pretty clear that Warner Bros. would throw Whitman some money after the judge hearing the case had said that Whitmill had a "strong likelihood of prevailing on the merits for copyright infringement" and that most of the arguments put forward by Warner Bros. were "just silly."
While I'm happy that tattoo artists' rights to their designs were recognized, the tattoo law nerd in me wished that this case had been decided to finally see how the courts would rule on the issue.
Again, I fully believe in a balancing of these rights between client and artist -- or have those rights hammered out in advance between them, especially with celebrities -- but in this case, Tyson himself was not at issue. It was Warner Bros. use of the design in the films, ads, and to-be-released DVD.
Will post a link to this post soon on our Facebook page to get your thoughts.
"Of course tattoos can be copyrighted" -- Judge Catherine D. Perry
Three weeks ago, I wrote about the tattoo copyright controversy over Mike Tyson's facial tattoo and its use in The Hangover Part II film. As I noted in that post, Victor Whitmill, who did Tyson's tattoo in 2003, is suing Warner Bros. for copyright infringement in pirating his tattoo design in the film and using it in its ubiquitous promotion campaign. He filed suit seeking damages and asking the court to issue an injunction to stop the use of the tattoo in the film, thus barring the film's release this Memorial Day weekend.
According to the NY Times Media Decoder blog, on Tuesday, Judge Catherine D. Perry of Federal District Court in St. Louis did not grant the injunction, stating that the harm to the public interest -- businesses beyond Warner Bros that would lose money if the film were not released on schedule -- outweighs the harm to the tattooist. However, the case doesn't end here as the NY Times reports:
Those silly claims include the assertion that tattoos do not have any copyright protection. Warner Bros. pulled out the big guns by having copyright specialist Professor David Nimmer attest that the body is not "a tangible medium of expression," among other arguments including "involuntary servitude." Read Nimmer's declaration in support of Warner Bros. here. It's a departure from Nimmer's original assertion in his treatise on copyright that tattoos are protected under the law. This flip flop did not go unnoticed.
With regard to Warner Bros.'s parody defense, the NY Times quotes Judge Perry: "This use of the tattoo did not comment on the artist's work or have any critical bearing on the original composition. There was no change to this tattoo or any parody of the tattoo itself. Any other facial tattoo would have worked as well to serve the plot device." [Some experts like Professor Eric Goldman disagree with the last sentence.]
What most experts do agree on is that this is not a frivolous case and Whitman could receive a big settlement.
Read my original post for the breakdown of issues surrounding this case.
I'd like like to add one more thing: This isn't a case about a tribal tattoo. It is about protection of works by tattooists. It may not stop companies from ripping off artists (especially apparel companies who are notorious for stealing tattoo designs), but big settlements may make them think twice about continuing to do so.
[Thanks to Benjamin for the Nimmer links.]