Interesting lawsuit in the news today over Warner Bros unauthorized use of a copyrighted tattoo design in the upcoming Hangover II movie. Apparently they duplicated – almost exactly – the tattoo that artist S. Victor Whitmill inked onto Mike Tyson's face years ago. It may be a tough one for Warner Bros to wiggle out of since Tyson appeared in the first movie, so they can hardly argue coincidence, also Whitmill has produced his copyright registration for the original tattoo, Tyson's signed release granting rights in the work to the artist, and some photos of himself applying the tattoo in 2003.
What I found particularly disconcerting were the comments on a news show this morning – one anchor suggested the lawsuit may be “frivolous” since it was a tattoo, and the other asked if maybe the work had been in the public domain long enough to fall under “fair use” (I restrained myself from hurling my egg sandwich at the screen). Copyrighted works are copyrighted works, whether they are painted on canvas, your wall or the faces of tattoo customers, and this work is clearly being used to make a profit.
There are a couple of lessons here: first, document your work and register your copyrights BEFORE you have a problem. As evidenced by the comments above, made by people who should definitely know better, the rights of intellectual property holders are under constant attack and unfortunately you need to be prepared to fight for them. Second, don’t assume that just because a company is big they will honor your copyrights – a mistake we are all guilty of making (see my 6/3/2010 post). This is not the first time down this road for Warner Bros, they coughed up a reported 17 mil for infringing on the “Dukes of Hazzard” idea, and court records everywhere are littered with past and current lawsuits in every imaginable category involving companies both large and small.
The key is to not let this unfortunate reality of this business paralyze you – do your prep, then take it in stride and worry about your next big idea, not who is stealing your last one.