Athletes Don’t Own Their Tattoos. That’s a Problem for Video Game Developers.


When LeBron James bounds down a basketball court, he is both a transcendent athlete and a prominent palette for dozens of tattoos. His mother’s name, Gloria, rests on a crown on his right shoulder and his forearms bear a portrait of his son LeBron Jr. and 330, an area code for his hometown, Akron, Ohio.

Although those tattoos have personal connections, they may not truly be his.

Any creative illustration “fixed in a tangible medium” is eligible for copyright, and, according to the United States Copyright Office, that includes the ink displayed on someone’s skin. What many people don’t realize, legal experts said, is that the copyright is inherently owned by the tattoo artist, not the person with the tattoos.

For most people, that is not a cause for concern. Lawyers generally agree that an implied license allows people to freely display their tattoos in public, including on television broadcasts or magazine covers. But when tattoos are digitally recreated on avatars in sports video games, copyright infringement can become an issue.

“Video games are an entirely new area,” said Michael A. Kahn, a copyright lawyer who represented the designer of the face tattoo on the boxer Mike Tyson. “There is LeBron James, but it’s not LeBron James. It’s a cartoon version of him.”

Not all tattoo licensing happens so amicably.

At least three lawsuits have been filed against Take-Two Interactive, a game developer and publisher, and a subsidiary, 2K Games. A federal court ruling in any of the cases could have a ripple effect among sports video games, which emphasize realism.

The company Solid Oak Sketches obtained the copyrights for five tattoos on three basketball players — including the portrait and area code on Mr. James — before suing in 2016 because they were used in the NBA 2K series. The following year, an artist sued because the Gloria tattoo on Mr. James, among others, were included in the same franchise. And in April, another artist sued because her tattoos on the wrestler Randy Orton had been included in several iterations of WWE 2K.

Shawn Rome and Justin Wright, two of the three tattoo artists who licensed their work to Solid Oak, said they had been deceived by its founder, Matthew Siegler, and never desired a lawsuit. He approached them with a plan to incorporate their tattoo designs into a clothing line, they said, but it went nowhere.

“He’s just poaching on artists,” Mr. Rome said.

Before filing its lawsuit, Solid Oak sought $819,500 for past infringement and proposed a $1.14 million deal for future use of the tattoos.

Mr. Siegler did not respond to requests for comment. His primary lawyer, Darren Heitner, said that Take-Two used the copyrights without permission, and that Mr. Siegler wanted to be fairly compensated. Peter C. Welch, associate general counsel for Take-Two, said he could not comment on pending litigation. A spokeswoman for 2K Games said it does not comment on legal matters.



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