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Can You Copyright a Tattoo?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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The issue of copyright in the tattoo community is actually quite complex, and rather controversial. In point of fact, it is possible to copyright a tattoo that has been custom-created for the client, just as any piece of original artwork can be copyrighted, and it is also possible to register a tattoo as a service mark. This raises interesting questions about whom the copyright should be assigned to, however, and what sort of legal reparations the copyright holder might be entitled to if the copyright is violated.

By law in many regions of the world, any original creation is automatically copyrighted, but if people want to protect their copyrights, they must actively register them with the appropriate office. The application typically includes proof that the work is, in fact, original, so that if the copyright holder is forced to challenge someone in the future, he or she has backup documentation. In the case of a situation where someone wants to register a tattoo, the application would include documentation of the original artwork used to create the stencil, along with photographs of the tattoo in situ on the client's skin.

Of course, when someone copyrights a tattoo, a legitimate question is whether the tattoo belongs to the tattoo artist who drew and executed the design or the client who wears it. If the tattoo belongs to the tattoo artist, he or she could potentially dictate that the tattoo could not be altered or removed in the future, and if the image was used for profit, as for example in promotional materials for something, the artist would be entitled to final say in whether or not the work could be used, along with the profits. If a tattoo belongs to a client, as many people believe it does, the client could restrict the use of the tattoo to ensure that it is not applied to anyone else, and he or she could sue someone who attempted to copy the image or use it in promotions.

Tattoo is an extremely derivative form of art, with many tattoo artists taking inspiration from historical tattoos and from their contemporaries. The idea that one could potentially copyright one raises concerns among some people in the industry, who argue that because tattoos are derivative work, routine copyrighting could potentially create chaos in the industry, especially since an infringing image need not be an exact copy; it could simply be a very close facsimile.

On the other hand, when someone becomes known for his or her tattoos, either as an artist or a client, it might make sense to formally register them as copyrighted to ensure that they are not copied or abused. Many people get tattoos for intensely personal reasons, and they are rightly dismayed to see their custom work displayed on someone else. By choosing to copyright a tattoo, someone can indicate that the design is not to be copied without specific permission.

Although copyright is largely a gray area in the tattoo industry, there is one area in which copyrights are very clear, and that is the case of tattoo flash. Tattoo flash are printed designs that can be turned into stencils for rapid tattooing, and they are owned by the people who create them. They can be sold, just like other copyrighted items such as books, and they can also be transferred between owners. The fee paid for the flash is also presumed to be a license for using the flash in tattooing, and no one can make copies of tattoo flash and distribute or sell them, as this would violate the copyright holder's rights.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon350618 — On Oct 07, 2013

When an artist sells his design for a price, it is obvious that he is disposing of his/her rights with it. The person who bought the tattoo has full rights to use it in anyway. When I got my first tattoo, I was told outright that when I buy a design, it will be mine. I of course got it inked but even if I hadn't, the artist would have no right to it.

By anon260044 — On Apr 09, 2012

I used to do tattoos several years ago. Most tattoo shops have flash. I do own some very cool flash that I bought. I assumed and have never heard otherwise, that once you legally bought the flash you had the right to use it as many times as you wanted.

Currently, I do not do tattoos, however I do a lot of airbrushing and have a few clients who have asked for flash art work since I own this flash. What difference does it make whether or not it's on a shirt or someone's skin?

By tu2tamu — On Jan 08, 2012

What if you're planning to create tattoo flash art but also plan to use the art on other products, like what Christian Audigier did with Ed Hardy (shirts, purses etc). The difference is that I'm the artist and the client in this case. Would it clear the grey area in this case?

By anon237707 — On Dec 30, 2011

What if you have a "falling out" with your tattoo artist and he bashes you in his personal blog then writes a "release of artwork' in his blog, including pictures of the tattoo he is releasing (which is already complete)? Anyone have thoughts on this?

By anon189888 — On Jun 24, 2011

Never thought of this! It would make sense for the designer of the tattoo to own the copyright!

By anon185103 — On Jun 10, 2011

I had photos of myself taken and the photography company explicitly tells you they hold copyright to the images and if I wish to post them on the internet for any purpose other than a private family photo page I must request in writing their permission to use them.

I say it's my likeness and I should be able to show it for any reason without permission. In the case of tattoos (and yes I have a tattoo), if the image was created by me, I should have the copyright. if it is the custom design of the tattoo artist, he should have the copyright.

By anon64151 — On Feb 05, 2010

Isn't tattooing a "work for hire" situation? Aren't most pieces created on another medium other than the skin? - it would make sense to copyright the original and grant rights or license the tattoo to the person receiving it. I feel once it is put on a person's skin, it belongs to them.

By anon49676 — On Oct 22, 2009

In any intellectual property work, once the work is paid for and then created, as in the case of a musical work the work belongs to the person who pays for it. similarly when the tattoo is made on the payment of a client as per his requirement, it is the client who would get the copyright on it!

By lemmings — On Aug 06, 2008

I don't know why the copyright wouldn't belong to the tattoo artist - after all, if it was a different piece of art, the copyright would belong to the artist, no matter who bought the art. So why would the client hold the copyright?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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