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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.