California tattoo lawsuit seeks to affect copyright laws

Published: Jul. 14, 2022 at 6:51 PM CDT
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - One common way people express themselves is with tattoos. But a recent lawsuit in California could curb that creative outlet.

Lots of people get tattoos of copyrighted images. In the California lawsuit, the person who took this photograph of Miles Davis in 1989 is suing the tattoo artist who inked it onto a client.

The outcome of the suit could have implications for artists hoping to create work based on copyrighted images. Tyler Rietz says borrowing from other artists is part of the artistic process.

“As an artist, we always borrow and lend from each other; that’s the creation process. We always take something from a design we think is cool and use it on ours, so it’s always just trading,” said Tyler Rietz, tattooer at Black Sheep Tattoo in Bismarck.

Beyond that, he says for a certain kind of artist, creating work from a real photo is the best way to do their job.

“You want to pull from real photos because that’s the most accurate representation of the person. So, for our job, that can be essential, you know,” said Tyler.

But regardless of how the case turns out in California, copyright attorneys say a ruling there likely wouldn’t have an immediate impact in North Dakota. “Obviously, the ruling would only be mandatory law within the jurisdiction of the California court.

In other words, a North Dakota court could rule differently, assuming that the case didn’t eventually go to the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Kevin Mason, attorney for Vogel Law Firm.

And for artists like Tyler, that’s good news.

“These images, they mean something to somebody. So, say if, for example, you’re a marine and you get that marine symbol tattooed on you. That means so much to you. So, yeah it might be copyrighted, but to you it means the world,” said Tyler.

The Supreme Court will decide a separate but similar case, which could have an impact on fair use. In that case, the Andy Warhol Foundation and photographer Lynn Goldsmith are at odds over copyright infringement.

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