Can I Copyright my Tattoo?

A while back someone asked me about writing a blog post on copyright law and tattoos. After thinking about it, I realized that the issue is one that provides a great opportunity to illustrate (no pun intended) some core concepts about copyright law that are often misunderstood by the general public and sometimes by creatives.

At issue is who owns the copyright in that tat on your forearm. After all, a tattoo is really no different than other creative work and as long as it is an “original work of authorship” (Most likely) and “fixed in a tangible form” (most defiantly), US law states that the subject matter is subject to copyright protection. A person who originally creates something generally has the exclusive right to control how that “expression” is used by others – they can give it away, sell it, or just prevent anyone else from using it. Tats are no different. When a tattoo artist does a design, whether directly on flesh or inked on a stencil, that creative work is his to control. The fact that it is a work being put onto the body of the customer is really no different than a wedding photographer’s right to control prints of a wedding, a musician controlling copies her composition, or a fine artist preventing prints being made of their work.


The same holds true for the stencils and “flash.” Flash is the process of putting a design on paper and tattoo designers committing their work to paper, which is then used by tattoo artist to ink the design. Over the years, the creation of “flash” has become an industry in itself, with designers being able to get their designs out to far more people than they could personally ink, by providing the designs to other tattoo shops.

Which leads me to language I found in a licensing agreement for a tattoo flash website “You may not . . .Remove the (c) from any design.” At least on its face, meaning that even when the design is inked, the © must appear. We hope they wont be this literal.

Now where can go out and get that tattoo on my backside “© my mama 1967” ?

Updated: 5/18/2017