Athletes Don’t Own Their Tattoos. That’s a Problem for Video Game Developers.

When LeBron James bounds down a basketball court, he is both a transcendent athlete and a prominent palette for dozens of tattoos. His mother’s name, Gloria, rests on a crown on his right shoulder and his forearms bear a portrait of his son LeBron Jr. and 330, an area code for his hometown, Akron, Ohio.

Although those tattoos have personal connections, they may not truly be his.

Any creative illustration “fixed in a tangible medium” is eligible for copyright, and, according to the United States Copyright Office, that includes the ink displayed on someone’s skin. What many people don’t realize, legal experts said, is that the copyright is inherently owned by the tattoo artist, not the person with the tattoos.

For most people, that is not a cause for concern. Lawyers generally agree that an implied license allows people to freely display their tattoos in public, including on television broadcasts or magazine covers. But when tattoos are digitally recreated on avatars in sports video games, copyright infringement can become an issue.

“Video games are an entirely new area,” said Michael A. Kahn, a copyright lawyer who represented the designer of the face tattoo on the boxer Mike Tyson. “There is LeBron James, but it’s not LeBron James. It’s a cartoon version of him.”

ImageThe sleeve tattoo on Lionel Messi’s arm in a screenshot from FIFA 18. The threat of litigation has prompted agents and players’ unions to advise athletes to get licensing agreements before they get tattooed.CreditEA Sports

Electronic Arts, a game developer and publisher, recreates more than 100 tattoos

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