In a case that may well have far-reaching ramifications, photographer Jeffrey B. Sedlik is squaring off against famous tattoo artist Kat Von D. He claims that when creating a tattoo for a client, she copied his 1989 photograph of legendary jazz artist Miles Davis.
The question being asked in the legal filing is: if your artwork is copyrighted, does that prevent someone from turning the image into a tattoo? A jury in California’s federal court will decide. According to legal experts, this is the first time a tattoo artist has been accused of copyright infringement.
Von D, whose legal name is Katherine Von Drachenberg, has been so successful as a tattoo artist that she has appeared on the reality TV series LA Ink and Miami Ink. Her tattoo parlor, High Voltage, boasts an Instagram account with over 900,000 followers.
She posted images of the Miles Davis tattoo, which was based on Sedlik’s 1989 photo, on her Instagram account in 2017, and Sedlik responded by suing her. He claimed that her tattoo was an unauthorized derivative work, and that by creating it and then posting it on her social media account, she infringed on his copyright.
U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer, after reviewing the filings, is bringing the case to trial. The jury will decide if the tattoo can be considered “fair use,” and if Von D’s use of Sedlik’s image prevented the photographer from being able to license his photograph.
The outcome of this case could have serious implications for tattoo artists, who often depict third-party images on clients. If tattoo artists are liable for copyright infringement, so too will be their clients, if they choose to get tattoos that are based on copyrighted material.
There have also been legal arguments about whether tattoo artists must grant licenses for their work to be reproduced. A U.S. federal judge ruled in 2020 that tattooed NBA players had the right to use their body art in a video game without a license from the tattoo artist.
This case may also be affected by an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court copyright lawsuit case against the Andy Warhol Foundation, where a lower court ruled in favor of photographer Lynn Goldsmith. That court ruled that Warhol’s silkscreen of Prince, which was based on her image, did not constitute fair use.