The film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was released in North America on March 19, 2010 – for entertainment lawyers, it raises the question: what do you do about a girl with a dragon tattoo who appears on-screen?
The errors and omissions "clearance" process requires producers of audio-visual projects to obtain licenses for all copyrighted materials which appear recognizably on-screen. A tattoo is, at least at some level, simply a drawing or painting rendered on a somewhat unusual canvas (ie the human body). At first glance, then, the tattoo should be the subject of copyright protection – but who should you approach to request permission to reproduce the image? The actor who has the tattoo imprinted on their body, or the tattoo artist who originally drew the tattoo (and what about a tattoo which is itself simply a reproduction of a pre-existing artwork or trade-mark)?
Christopher Harkins has written what appears to be the only currently-available long-form consideration of the question: "Tattoos And Copyright Infringement: Celebrities, Marketers, And Businesses Beware Of The Ink" (10 Lewis & Clark Law Review 314) (hat tip: Simon Chester at slaw), which opens with a discussion about a case involving a tattoo artist suing the NBA for copyright infringement when the NBA created advertisements depicting player Rasheed Wallace and a close-up (and animation) of the tattoo on his right forearm (the case was eventually settled with no public disclosure of the settlement terms). Harkins analyzes the matter from the perspective of US copyright law, and Jordan S. Hatcher also offers some thoughts on the matter (including an interesting sidebar on the intersection of tattoos and moral rights). The answers are not straightforward, regardless of the jurisdiction: Harkins offers an apposite closing thought when considering tattoos on-screen: "a veritable gauntlet of copyright issues may lurk".