It is an oft repeated truth that copyright exists automatically from the moment a work is fixed in tangible form and that no formalities are required to preserve the copyright. In the United States, registration with the Copyright Office is only necessary to sue for infringement, but it is not uncommon for owners to defer registration until litigation is contemplated. The recent decision in Solid Oak Sketches v. 2K Games, Inc. is a healthy reminder that the timing of the registration can significantly affect the remedies available to the copyright owner in a suit for infringement and that a delay in registration can be costly.
The remedies for copyright infringement include recovery of actual damages and the profits of the infringer, as well as an injunction of continued infringement in appropriate cases. But the law also permits recovery of “statutory damages”, in lieu of proving actual damages or profits. Attorney’s fees, expert witness fees, deposition costs and similar litigation expenses can be recovered by the prevailing party. Given the potential cost of prosecuting a copyright infringement action and proving damages, the plaintiff’s ability to recover its attorney’s fees and litigation expenses, as well as statutory damages, can be important factors in the calculus of the value of the litigation for both the plaintiff and the defendant.
However, the law permits recovery of attorney’s fees and statutory damages from a defendant only if the copyright was registered with the copyright office before the infringement “commenced”.
The plaintiff in Solid Oak was the copyright owner of the artwork for eight designs, tattooed on five different National Basketball Association (NBA) players. (If you did not realize tattoo art is copyrightable, you didn’t read my colleague, Alan Behr’s, recent post.) The defendants created and sold realistic basketball simulation video games, using animated versions of the NBA players as they appeared in real life, complete with their tattoos. The first video game in the series was introduced in 2013 and new versions appeared in 2014 and 2015. The plaintiff registered its tattoo designs in 2015, after the initial versions of the game appeared, but prior to the release of the 2016 game in the series. Unable to convince the defendant to take a license for the tattoo artwork appearing on the players depicted in the game, Solid Oak brought suit for copyright infringement.
The court held that Solid Oak was not entitled to recover attorney’s fees and statutory damages, even with respect to the 2016 version of the game which was released after registration of the copyright, because the infringement had commenced before the registration of the tattoo art in 2015. According to the court, when the first act of infringement in a series of on-going infringements precedes registration, these special remedies are not available, even if the versions released after registration differed from the prior versions.
In the fashion industry, where knock-offs can appear in the market within months of the introduction of an original design, it can be advisable to register print, lace and jewelry designs as “unpublished works” before they reach the market. The fee for registration is only $35 and it can be done on-line without a large investment of time. The benefits, which also include a presumption that the two or three dimension design is an original, copyrightable work, owned by the registrant, are well worth the money and effort.
Credit: Helene M. Freeman
I vaguely recall, from long repressed memory, the time when only sailors and thugs had themselves tattooed. But anyone caught in a crowd, especially on a summer’s day, when long-cloaked skin comes into the fore, can clearly see that having oneself inked has become quite the fashion. Apparently, late in the last century, the movement was begun by, or was at least energized by, Los Angeles celebrities who risked going to less than savory places to have butterflies, arrow-pierced hearts and other traditional artifacts poked into them with commanding permanence. The fad grew quickly to become an international trend. I remember sitting down for dinner at a restaurant in a small Bavarian town in the year 2000 and wondering, as the waitress arrived in a fetching spread-eagle bodice, how far down the tattoo on her left breast extended. The answer, we now know, is that it went as far below the line as nature gave room for its descent. When something becomes as obviously popular as tattooing, it tells us that it is time, of course, to consider the legal implications.
Covering an entire arm with words, phrases and graphic-novel style illustrations (known in the trade as “doing a sleeve”) is now not uncommon. There remain limits. The military has the right to refuse potential enlistees who arrive with what is deemed excessive or “grossly offensive” tattooing. There appears to be no legal impediment to the military in making those distinctions, but we can anticipate that someone may, at some point, raise a First Amendment objection. There has already been a federal appeals court decision striking down a municipality’s ban on tattoo parlors as a violation of the First Amendment.¹
Copyright law presents a more interesting problem: In the absence of a contract stating otherwise, the owner of the copyright in the artwork worn by the tattooed person is the artist. That is, if you go to a tattoo parlor and have it do a sleeve filled with flying dragons, flying skulls and terrestrial motifs, the owner of the copyright in the art you are wearing is not you but the person with the tattoo gun who pummeled it into you—unless (a) the artist is an employee of the salon or (b) the artist and the salon have entered into an assignment of rights contract, in which case the salon is the owner of the art on your arm. The lawful owner can register the art with the Copyright Office and sue to protect its rights against infringers, most notably including copycat rival tattoo artists.
If your artist has tattooed onto your arm something to which the copyright is owned by another—say Mickey Mouse or the Batmobile—you, as the bearer of the arm, could theoretically be caught in the middle of a legal fight with the copyright owner. In copyright cases, impoundment and destruction are possible remedies, but we likely will not see the day when the wearer of a tattoo would be required to visit a local tattoo-removal center to resolve copyright litigation. What could happen in theory in copyright matters is, fortunately, often removed from what typically does occur.
What is the takeaway from all this? Your arm is lovely the way it arrived along with you. Strictly as a question of taste, perhaps it is better just to let that be enough for you.
¹ Anderson v. City of Hermosa Beach, 621, F.3d 1051 (9th Cir. 2010)
Credit: Alan Behr