United States: Who Owns Your Ink?

Last Updated: November 23 2018
Article by Natalie Slabbert

In August 2016 in the USA, Solid Oak Sketches LLC sued 2K Games, Inc and Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. on the basis of copyright infringement. Solid Oak Sketches LLC is the registered owner of the copyright in the tattoos of various NBA players including LeBron James and Kobe Byrant. 2K Games and Take-Two Interactive use the likenesses of these NBA players in their games such as NBA 2K14, NBA 2K15 and NBA 2K16. In these games, the NBA players are depicted as realistically as possible - down to the details of their tattoos.

Solid Oak had offered to license the use of the depiction of the tattoos to 2K Games and Take-Two Interactive. 2K Games and Take-Two Interactive refused this offer but nevertheless depicted these NBA players adorned with their tattoos, the tattoos depicted in fine detail.

Since 2016, the battle between these parties has raged on. In September this year, Solid Oak stated that its main contention was not whether 2K Games, Inc and Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. could depict the NBA players, nor even how these players were depicted, but rather that Solid Oak’s copyrighted works were so brazenly represented in a game sold for profit, without permission or licence.

This case takes for granted that tattoos can be the subject of copyright in the first place - one cannot license the use of copyright if it does not exist in the work. Also, in the US, copyright can be registered and Solid Oak is the registered owner of the copyright in the tattoo. In South Africa, however, copyright, for the most part, cannot be registered.

So, if this case was heard in South Africa, would our courts hold that a tattoo can be the subject of copyright protection? Also, who would own that copyright?

The Copyright Act 98 of 1978 determines that a work may be the subject of copyright protection if it (amongst other requirements) is a work as defined in this Act; if it is original; and if it is reduced to material form.

Theoretically then, copyright could subsist in a tattoo as a tattoo is an artistic work (one of the works defined in the Copyright Act), if it is original (it has not been copied from another work i.e. it is a custom design) and it is reduced to material form. However, this can become quite problematic when someone infringes the copyright in your tattoo. How would you enforce your right if someone copied your tattoo by getting the same tattoo? One certainly cannot get a court order for the removal of a leg or an arm. Would one request a lifelong royalty?

Importantly also, who owns the copyright in a tattoo? The general rule is that the author of the work is the owner of the copyright in the work. However, the Act contains certain exceptions. For example, if you work for a newspaper or publication, and the work in question was created in the scope of your duties, the copyright belongs to the publication. Similarly, if the work was created in the scope of your duties in your employment with any employer, the copyright in the work belongs to your employer. Lastly, if someone is commissioned to create a closed list of works, the person commissioning the work is the owner of the copyright in the work. This closed list does not include an artistic work and does not include a tattoo. Even if you commission the tattoo and pay for it, according to the Act, the copyright would be owned by the tattoo artist.

So, unfortunately, the copyright in the ink on your arm - even though it’s the stylised date of birth of your child or it says, in a stylised form, “I love my Mommy” - is probably owned by the tattoo artist.

This raises interesting questions about the right of the tattooed individual to display her own image and to reproduce the tattoo which has become a feature of her body. As the tattoo artist is the owner of the copyright, traditional remedies for infringement (e.g. interdicts or destruction of the infringing materials) are obviously not available as these would lead to violations of bodily integrity or violations of a person’s right to choose and continue in a profession (for example, a model’s right to sell photographs of himself).

In the case of LeBron and the other NBA players, it seems to me that the most practical way to avoid a debate over the use of copyrighted tattoos is to make sure that the copyright in a tattoo is assigned to the person who is tattooed. This is especially true for celebrities and sports stars who license their image for product endorsements.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Cowan Liebowitz & Latman PC
In association with
Practice Guides
by Mondaq Advice Centers
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Related Topics
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Cowan Liebowitz & Latman PC
Related Articles
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions