Tattoos are permanent, often complex, creative, and original pieces of work created by a tattoo artist. Recently, litigation has come up regarding tattoos on famous athletes. While most issues involving tattoos on athletes are more easily handled — such as J.R. Smith’s tattoo of the brand Supreme on his leg1 — there are questions of whether a tattoo is subject to copyright protection when it is prominently displayed and reproduced on a famous athlete in a video game. This question is at the center of a lawsuit filed by Solid Oak Sketches against Take Two Interactive Software as well as two other producers of the popular NBA 2K video games based on the video games’ reproductions of players’ tattoos, including LeBron James.2
A similar issue arose in 2011, in which tattoo artist S. Victor Whitmill claimed to have copyright ownership of Mike Tyson’s face tattoo, with the tattoo in question given to Tyson in 20033. Whitmill sued Warner Bros., claiming that the popular film Hangover 2 infringed on his work when they reproduced Tyson’s tattoo on a main character’s face4. While Whitmill’s complaint failed to temporarily enjoin the studio from releasing the film in theaters, the case was settled out of court and now leaves an underwhelming amount of case law on the subject.5
The Copyright Act of 1976 gives protection to artists that establish that: (1) their creation is the type of work that is protectable; (2) their creation is an original and creative work; and (3) the creation is affixed to a tangible medium for expression.6 Further, § 202 of the Copyright Act states that “ownership of a copyright… is distinct from ownership of any material object in which the work is embodied.”7 This means that a tattoo artist does in fact have copyright ownership over original and creative tattoos that they give, even when those tattoos are on another person’s body. However, there is an implied license that allows people to freely and publicly display their tattoos — for example, on television, film, and magazines — so for most people, this is not a problem.8However, this issue has arisen because LeBron’s tattoos are not only being displayed, but they are being digitally reproduced in a video game, causing an issue for copyright infringement issue.9
The company Solid Oak Sketches obtained the copyrights for two of LeBron James’ four tattoos in question — the portrait of his child and the area code — before suing in 2016 because they were used in the NBA 2K series.10 Take Two argues a fair use defense, stating that the tattoos are covered under fair use and are not a critical component of the video games, seen only fleetingly or rarely.11 However, that argument may not hold water due to the time and energy put into recreating both the athletes and tattoos with incredible accuracy.12 Further, this argument did not survive the motion to dismiss, with Judge Laura Taylor Swain finding that the defenses presented by Take Two are fact-intensive and will require more evidence.13
New York University intellectual property law professor Christopher Jon Sprigman says to the New York Times that Solid Oak’s lawsuit “amounts to a shakedown and copyright trolling,” stating further that “[t]hey shouldn’t be allowed to tell LeBron James that he can’t take deals to license his likeness… the ability of the celebrity, or really anyone, to do that is an element of their personal freedom.”14 LeBron James states that his tattoos are a part of his “persona and identity,” saying that if he is not shown with his tattoos, it would not be an accurate depiction of himself.15 In a Declaration of Support for the defendants from LeBron James, he states that the four tattoos in question were “inked in Akron, Ohio,” and in each case, he had a conversation with the tattooist about what he wanted inked on his body.16
The outcome of this case will set an important precedent on whether or not tattoo artists can demand monetary compensation every time a celebrity’s likeness has been reproduced. Since the rise of litigation, players’ unions and sports agents have been advising athletes to secure licensing agreements before they get tattooed, in order to protect their future interests.17 This way, the athletes have secured their rights while giving artists have an incentive to sign rather than pass up a celebrity client who could be a walking advertisement for their art18.
1 Cam Wolf, NBA Tells J.R. Smith to Cover Up His Supreme Tattoo Or Else, GQ (Oct. 1, 2018), https://www.gq.com/story/jr-smith-supreme-tattoo-nba?verso=true (in which Cleveland Cavaliers’ J.R. Smith was told by the National Basketball Association that they would fine him for every game of the season that he failed to cover up the Supreme logo on his leg, citing the League’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, which states that ‘a player may not, during any game, display any commercial, promotional, or charitable name, mark, logo, or other identification… on his body.’).
2Jason M. Bailey, Athletes Don’t Own Their Tattoos. That’s a Problem for Video Game Developers, New York Times (Dec. 27, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/27/style/tattoos-video-games.html.
13 Thomas Baker, NBA 2K Tattoo Copyright Suit Offers Two Compelling Legal Arguments, but Only One Seems Practical, Forbes (Jan. 4, 2019), https://www.forbes.com/sites/thomasbaker/2019/01/04/lebron-smartly-sides-with-the-producers-of-nba-2k-in-tattoo-copyright-case-but-will-that-be-enough/#4e08f33c7663.
The reworked “fair use” defense has provoked debate because it provides excessively broad immunity to certain types of parodies and other expressive uses of trademarks.1 This Article will explore whether the Trademark Dilution Revision Act (TDRA) promotes a flawed treatment of parodies with regard to sub-clauses that provide selective shelter, and exonerating some parodies from liability while impugning others.2 The principal flaw that is discussed in this Article relates to the parody provision and its application of the trademark use test for determining whether a parody is fair. The provision is pliable in that it can be both lenient and strict on parodies.
I. Trademark Dilution Revision Act
The language of the TDRA appears to implicitly divide parodies into two distinct groups: source denoting parodies and non-source denoting parodies. Non-source denoting parodies are artistic parodies- that are not used as trademarks and are treated with leniency, whereas source-identifying parodies generally receive strict treatment3. A plain reading of the provision appears to confer blanket immunity to all parodies as long as they are not being utilized as indicators of source(s) for goods or services4. On the other hand, it imposes liability on parodies that function as trademarks without suitable inquiry into the nature or impact of the parody in question.5,6 This parody approach fails to adequately assess forms of harm since it focuses exclusively on the classification of the parody’s status, rather than the effect.
The focus of inquiry should be on the effect of the parody in relation to the original trademark’s distinctive quality or reputation, with consideration regarding the investment to establish such distinctiveness, and not just on the status and presence of commercial or trademark use. However, this is not the case because the TDRA’s fair use provision fails to appropriately distinguish parodies that convey an artistic or social message from those that tarnish a senior mark.7 The broad language of the exception allows tarnishing use to be exempt from liability so long as the parody in question is not utilized as a source indicator.8 The “fair use” provision appears to provide automatic immunity to non-source denoting parodies, as it stipulates that only these types of parodies that do not function as designators of source, are eligible for exemption under the provision.9 The exemption is justified by the First Amendment.
II. Exploring the TDRA Flaw
Parodies are expressive by nature.10 For this reason, some parodist choose to present their parodies as “works of art” to the public; such representations can be made without any connection to goods or services, and occasionally, without the expectation of commercial gains.11
Still, these parodies can be harmful to the original trademark owner when free-riding occurs, or some harm to the goodwill of the mark because of confusion or false misrepresentation. Free-riding occurs when the parodist receives a benefit from the association between their mark and the well-known mark12. Although some have argued these actions are permissible because they align with the First Amendment justification, and ensure that the original owner shall not be able to monopolize the famous creation, this view fails to consider the investment the original owner sacrificed to establish the identity of being “well-known” or “famous.” As a result, parodists can reap where they have not sown.
Courts have confirmed that the TDRA applies different treatments to parodies based on their categorial status. The TDRA enactment amended the fair use defense by adding an expressed defense for noncommercial use; this plain language of the provision explicitly excluded source denoting parodies. Therefore, courts relied on the main dilution factors provided by the Act, instead of the fair use exception, to immunize source denoting parodies from liability. 13
In Louis Vuitton Malletier S.A. v. Haute Diggity Dog, LLC, the court confirmed that the parody clause in the fair use provision is not exhaustive in its coverage of non-dilutive parodies.14 This case set a precedent which allows parodies that are being used as a trademark to sell goods in commerce to be exempted from liability for dilution, in certain circumstances.15 The court’s analysis indicates that a parody does not necessarily need to satisfy the fair use provision in order to be exonerated from liability.16
The courts affirmations justify the concerns with the TDRA’s fair use parody clause, as it demonstrates that the provision is both too broad in some respects, but also too narrow in others.17 The provision is broad as it largely immunizes all non-source denoting parodies from liability without assessing the message communicated by the parody and its effect on the reputation of the mark. If the message promotes a negative impact on the goodwill of the original trademark owner or free-riding occurs, the original owner will have no claim against the parodist, and the First Amendment justification trumps the original owner’s interest or disfavored effects. On the other hand, the provision is too narrow because it excludes certain source-denoting parodies that may not be deserving of protections because of the extraordinary investments original owners take to establish a specialized distinction for the mark.
Allowing protection under these circumstances, permits the parodist to take advantage of trademark owners marketing investments and efforts they may have taken years to establish. Further, the treatment permits free riding. Consequently, the approach to the treatment of parodies effectively ‘dilutes’ trademark owners of the right to obtain an appropriate remedy against parodist who have tarnished their marks by engaging in an unfair or offensive comparison, and parodist who has benefited from the original owner’s investments.
An example of these effects is demonstrated in Mattel, Inc. v. Walking Mountain Productions. In this case, the parodist is an artist who posed nude Barbie dolls in photographs that displayed Barbie getting attacked by vintage household appliances.18 Although the artist failed to use the term “Barbie,” the art itself irrefutably involved the trademarked doll and the titles reflected that fact.19 The message of the parody meant to diminish the Barbie persona that was established by Mattel through successful marketing.20 Mattel had purportedly established Barbie as “the ideal American woman” and a symbol of “American girlhood.”21 Is it unfair for a parodist to attempt to destroy the goodwill or reputation of the mark? The law certainly does not think so because such actions are viewed as an exercise of the First Amendment right.
But what if the only reason the parodist receives an audience or attention is because of “Barbie.” Is the original owner now entitled to a claim? Had it not been for the original owner, the parody would likely have never been created, nor would the parody have received the level of attention attained. But for the original owner’s investments toward establishing the mark’s goodwill, it is likely the parody would be non-existent, or at the very least would not have obtained the level of attention it received. If these photos only receive attention because of “Barbie,” does that mean the parodist is permitted to free-ride off of the famous mark owner’s marketing efforts and investments that may have taken the owner years to establish? Trademark law is permitting parodist to reap what the original owners have taken years to sow! It could take a trademark-owner years to establish a distinct attractiveness in the marketplace. However, a parodist need only use the famous mark under the guise of a parody and receive the same benefits of attractiveness through association, at a fraction of the time and monetary investment that was devoted by the original owner.
Under these protections lays the question of fairness, which arises when there is harm from the parodist belittling the reputation of the mark that is being ridiculed.22 Still, the current parody provision does not possess sufficient nuance to assess the type or extent of damage inflicted on the senior mark, caused by the tarnishing effects of the parody.23 Particularly, it fails to provide guidance on the level and quality of ridicule that is considered “acceptable” for a parody.24 This raises some concerns; virtually many cases of non-trademark expressive use would receive protection under the Act. The TDRA arguably tilts the balance too far in favor of non-trademark use parodies.
1 Eugene Lim, Of Chew Toys & Designer Handbags: A Critical Analysis of the “Parody” Exception under the U.S Trademark Dilution Revision Act, 35 CAMPBELL L. REV. 83, 90 (2012).
2 Id. at 92.
4 Eugene Lim, Of Chew Toys & Designer Handbags: A Critical Analysis of the “Parody” Exception under the U.S Trademark Dilution Revision Act, 35 CAMPBELL L. REV. 83, 92 (2012); Justin Gunnell, Evaluation of the Dilution-Parody Paradox in the Wake of the Trademark Dilution Revision Act of 2006, 26 CARDOZO ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT 441, 455 (2008).
5 Eugene Lim, Of Chew Toys & Designer Handbags: A Critical Analysis of the “Parody” Exception under the U.S Trademark Dilution Revision Act, 35 CAMPBELL L. REV. 83, 92 (2012).
6 It’s the courts duty to inquire about the nature or impact of the parody which is determined through the infringement factors discussed in the following section.
7 Eugene Lim, Of Chew Toys & Designer Handbags: A Critical Analysis of the “Parody” Exception under the U.S Trademark Dilution Revision Act, 35 CAMPBELL L. REV. 83, 93 (2012).
8 Eugene Lim, Of Chew Toys & Designer Handbags: A Critical Analysis of the “Parody” Exception under the U.S Trademark Dilution Revision Act, 35 CAMPBELL L. REV. 83, 93 (2012); Justin Gunnell, Evaluation of the Dilution-Parody Paradox in the Wake of the Trademark Dilution Revision Act of 2006, 26 CARDOZO ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT 441, 455 (2008).
9 Eugene Lim, Of Chew Toys & Designer Handbags: A Critical Analysis of the “Parody” Exception under the U.S Trademark Dilution Revision Act, 35 CAMPBELL L. REV. 83, 92-93 (2012).