L.A. jury finds tattoo image is fair use

On Behalf of | Feb 7, 2024 | Copyright Law |

Celebrity tattoo artist Kat von D has done body art for thousands of paying clients, and she also appeared on TLC’s tattoo reality shows Miami Ink and LA Ink. Her high profile likely led to the copyright infringement case involving her work recreating a 1989 photographic portrait of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis putting his finger to his lips, seemingly telling everyone to keep quiet. Photographer Jeffrey Sedlik registered the copyright for the iconic image in 1994 and has earned a steady income from licensing its use for t-shirts, prints, and even tattoos. His suit claimed that Kat Von D (real name Katherine von Drachenberg) should have paid him a license fee to use the image. Von D posted images about the project in several social media posts documenting how she used the image to create the tattoo.

Fair use doctrine cited

Eight jurors in a Los Angeles court deliberated to reach a verdict, finding that the tattoo work and the posts fell within the fair use doctrine. While each case is different with varying outcomes, this legal doctrine promotes freedom of expression by allowing unauthorized use of a copyright-protected work where, for example, the new use has a signficantly different character or use than the original, where only a portion of the original is used, and where the new use has no impact on the marketability of the original.

Jurors deliberated for two hours to reach a verdict.

If Sedlik had won the case, it would have been worth between as little as $200 and as much as $150,000. In her testimony, the defendant stated: “I made zero money off it. I’m not mass-producing anything. I think there is a big difference.”

“Fair use” is often highly disputed

Like many other legal doctrines, the concept of fair use is open to interpretation and addressed on a case-by-case basis. Those with questions about a potential lawsuit should discuss it with an intellectual property attorney who handles copyright litigation.