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Sports stars do not own the rights to their tattoos – and this is a problem for video game creators. 

Agents advise athletes to license their own tattoo, so as not to face legal difficulties.

Screenshot from FIFA 18

Any creative illustration “enshrined on a tangible medium” may be protected by copyright. According to the rules of the US Copyright Office, this also applies to ink applied to the skin – and from this point of view, the rights to the tattoo belong to the tattoo artist, and not to the one on whose body the picture is full.

Lawyers generally agree that people can freely show their tattoos in public, including on television or on magazine covers. However, when tattoos are recreated digitally in sports video games, this can be a problem, explained inThe New York Times.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Video games are a completely new area. There is LeBron James, but this is not LeBron James, this is his painted version.[/perfectpullquote]
Michael Kahn
copyright lawyer

The developer of Electronic Arts games recreated over a hundred tattoos of athletes in their FIFA and UFC games, including the “sleeve” of Lionel Messi and the gorilla eating the heart on Conor MacGregor’s chest. Because of this, the company had to deal with claims of copyright infringement. This happened for the first time when Ricky Williams got tattoos on the cover of the NFL Street game, but that time the tattoo artist withdrew his claims. At least three lawsuits were filed against Take-Two Interactive and its subsidiary 2K Games.

Screenshot from NBA 2K14

“From a business point of view, it would be more advisable to remove tattoos from the game or place drawings on the bodies of players whose design is publicly available,” says Yolanda King, a professor at the University of Illinois. Video game companies are already paying for a license for copyrighted music, and can avoid the extra cost of negotiating with hundreds of athletes about the rights to their tattoos.

However, the athletes themselves may have a different opinion. Basketball player Lebron James has publicly supported Take-Two and 2K Games, which was sued by the author of his tattoos. The athlete said that “tattoos are part of his personality and a manifestation of individuality,” and without them his image cannot be considered true.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]For 15 years of playing in professional basketball, this is the first such case when someone announces that I cannot give a license to use my own image.[/perfectpullquote]
Lebron james
basketball player

Because of the threat of litigation, agents and players’ unions began advising athletes to get licensing agreements before they get a tattoo. Artists most often agree to sign such agreements, because famous athletes in any case become a live advertisement for their work.

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