Tattoo artists want to have copyright on their work

“Skin is probably the hardest thing to copyright, because everyone is copying it.” Pacific Tattoo owner Tim Hunt wanted artists to respect the meaning of Māori and Pacific cultural patterns and symbols. “Any artist could say, I can do you a design that has korus and looks Māori”, Hunt said.

According to the Berne Convention, for a literary or artistic work to be protected under copyright law, the two requirements of originality and fixation must be met.

While copyright protection exists at the moment of creation, its never a bad idea to register a copyright for your work as a tattoo artist, particularly if your work is extremely recognizable and frequently employs the use of the same patterns or techniques. Likewise, many tattoo artists use contracts to protect themselves from copyright infringement, by requiring clients to sign away their rights. Similarly, it’s advisable that you do your own homework before drawing a tattoo on someone without having a clear picture of the origin of that design.

As clients using their own original work, consider having a frank conversation with your artist about the rights you’d like to maintain within the work, in order to determine whether a work-for-hire scenario is possible. As an artist interested in working with tattooed images, just put yourself in the tattoo artist’s shoes – you wouldn’t want someone stealing your artwork, either.

Union Tattoo owner Craigy Lee believes there is already an unwritten code in New Zealand that decent tattoo artists don’t copy designs. There’s an unwritten rule in New Zealand – decent tattoo artists don’t copy designs.

Right now the Copyright Act 1994 is under review, and artists behind the ink say stricter legislation could protect original tattoo designs. Overseas, tattoo artists are suing when their designs appear on in the media, like television.

In 2011, the artist of Mike Tyson’s Māori-inspired facial tattoo sued Warner Bros over a depiction of similar facial art on a  character in The Hangover: Part II.

If we allow tattoo artists to claim copyright separately over depiction of body art in video games, tomorrow artists might also claim infringement of copyright where an athlete flaunts his tattoos in a commercial (a situation that has been contemplated before) or where a tattooed athlete is depicted in a comic; in my opinion, allowing such claims would be stretching it too far and would also be unjust.


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