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Recent Court Decisions Offer Insight Into U.S. Copyright Law


A recent spate of copyright infringement lawsuits has provided further insight into U.S. copyright law. When and how, for instance, is a tattoo design copyrightable? Can a tattoo artist sue a videogame if his designs appear in the videogame? These are questions that an Ohio federal judge was required to answer in 2024 when James Hayden, a tattoo artist, sued 2K Games, Inc. for realistic depictions of NBA players’ tattoos in the video game.

Hayden v. 2K Games, Inc.

In January 2024, an Ohio judge dismissed 4 of 6 claims filed by Hayden against 2K Games, Inc. According to a U.S. District Judge, Hayden failed to disclose that four of his tattoos incorporated preexisting works when he registered them with the U.S. Copyright Office several years earlier. The U.S. Copyright Office was asked to issue a statement on the case. It said that it would not have registered the tattoo designs if it had known at the time that the designs included “an appreciable amount” of public domain material or material that was owned by a third party that the applicant failed to disclose during the registration process.

In this case, the court has yet to address whether the use of the tattoos in the video game is itself infringement. Instead, the court focused on the way that the tattoos were copyrighted in the first place and ruled that they were falsely registered.

Sedlik v. Von Drachenberg 

In California, another copyright infringement lawsuit was filed against a tattoo artist. This ruling came just one day after the Hayden ruling. According to the plaintiff, Sedlik, celebrity tattoo artist Kat Von D. violated the copyright of a photo they took when she reproduced the image as a tattoo and advertised it on her social media sites. In this case, a California jury dismissed the case against the tattoo artist and found in favor of the defendant.

The question put before the jury was whether or not the tattoo was substantially similar to the original photo and the degree of substantial similarity the tattoo had when compared to the photo. The jury found that the tattoo of Miles Davis, which was created by Von D, was not substantially similar to Sedlik’s photo of Davis. However, the plaintiff presented evidence that Von D used the actual photo as a basis for her tattoo. The jury found that this usage fell under Fair Use.

Insights from these cases 

In light of these recent decisions, video game developers will still need to exercise caution when tattooing virtual players. Two of the 6 copyright infringement claims against 2K Games, Inc. have survived on their merits. This means that the matter could go before a jury to decide. On the other hand, the tattoo industry appears to be safe from infringement claims as their long-standing practice of reworking copyrighted images will likely survive legal scrutiny as long as the designs are sufficiently original.

Talk to a Columbus, OH Business Torts Attorney Today 

Kohl & Cook Law Firm, LLC represents the interests of businesses in business torts claims such as copyright infringement. Call our Columbus consumer lawyers today to schedule a free consultation, and we can begin discussing your business’s needs right away.



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