In a case filed by the copyright owner (Solid Oak Sketches LLC) against the NBA2k video game maker (Take Two Interactive), the issue is whether NBA players, including Lebron James, can license the image of their own tattoos. In this digital age, video games such as NBA2K depict lifelike avatars of fans’ favorite professional sports players, complete with mirror image recreations of those players’ physical characteristics, including tattoos. For Lebron James’ NBA2K avatar, this means that tattoos depicting the phrase “Hold My Own” on James’ left bicep, as well as the “330 Area Code” on his right forearm, are clearly visible and used throughout the video game, triggering the infringement claim.
On one side of the coin, Solid Oak claims that because the actual tattoo artists sold it the copyright to the underlying images, only Solid Oaks owns the rights to reproduce and publicly display those tattooed images, which were infringed by the video game maker. On the flip side, Take Two asserts that Lebron James (through the NBA), allowed it to use his image, name, and likeness in the NBA2k video game, which necessarily included the subject tattoos. Take Two also claimed that its depiction of the tattooed images were otherwise protected under the fair use doctrine. Solid Oaks recently survived Take Two’s motion to dismiss, and future rulings in the case could have significant implications on the NBA and its players, video game companies, and tattoo artists who create the underlying images. The lawsuit is proceeding before United States District Judge Laura Swain in the Southern District of New York.