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Tattoos, Norms, and Implied Licenses

By Aaron Perzanowski. Full Text.

This Essay considers the legal questions raised by a recent flurry of tattoo copyright disputes and their intersection with industry norms. In particular, Perzanowski argues that public displays, reproductions, derivative works, and other uses of tattoo designs fall within the scope of a broad implied license when they are employed to accurately depict the body of a tattooed person. Such licenses are widely—if not universally—accepted within the tattoo industry and an expected part of the bargain between the tattooer and her client. More fundamentally, a norm of bodily autonomy is at the core of tattooing as a social practice, and assertions of copyright are inconsistent with this central purpose. The attempted erosion of these norms, while it may serve the short-term interests of a handful of opportunistic plaintiffs, will likely do considerable harm to the tattoo industry more broadly by disrupting reasonable expectations, imposing new administrative costs, and exposing tattooers to greater legal risk.