Copyright in Tattoos- Exhaustion of rights?

The issue was recently raised as to the ownership of a tattoo. In most cases a design is chosen and the artist tattoos it on to the client. In the UK this would mean that the author and the original copyright holder will be the artist unless further agreement is made to transfer ownership.

The question was posed as to whether there was copyright infringement if the tattoo appears in movies and advertising without the permission of the tattoo artist, can the artist take control of their work and prevent you from appearing in the movie or advertising if it were to damage the artist’s reputation?

The notion that you are not in control of your own body or that someone owns a part of your body is an odd concept but one that must be explored in this instance.

In this instance it is highly likely that if the tattoo appeared incidentally, ie it is simply part of the character’s body then there should be no form of infringement any more than the accidental inclusion of buildings, cars, shops and pedestrians in a movie which all have copyright, design rights and trade mark rights. In a world where a movie producer would need to gain permission from all of these rights holders, even incidental inclusions such as people on the street, there would not be movies due to the sheer effort involved.

In this situation the principle of the exhaustion of rights needs to be applied. Once a tattoo has been released in to the world, its author cannot stop the owner doing something, in so far that it is part of them. The copyright instead will prevent others copying the same work.

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