You Can’t Mess with Mike Tyson; His Tattoo on the Other Hand…
Mike Tyson is known for rash behavior. (That wasn’t the spoiler.) So when he tattooed his face back in ’03 I was certainly shocked, but I wasn’t really surprised. Similar cries for help have had the same effect on me. Since the early 90s, any image of Mike Tyson rightfully implanted both fear and confusion (often simultaneously). Then came the tattoo, which did the impossible: It made him more scary.
Here comes the spoiler…Mike Tyson and his tattoo appeared in the 2009 smash comedy hit “The Hangover.” This film is equal parts hilarious and intriguing. So much so that the producers couldn’t help themselves and created a sequel less than two years later (and wrote the script over a weekend apparently). The storyline is essentially the same as the original only now the gang is in Thailand (insert Bangkok joke here). The film’s protagonist, Ed Helms’s character Stu, again wakes up having done serious physical damage to his person. Instead of a missing tooth, however, he finds a tattoo on his face nearly identical to that of Iron Mike. In fact when you set them side-by-side, you can barely tell them apart (the tattoos, that is).
When Tyson’s tattoo artist S. Victor Whitmill caught wind of the tattoo on Helms’s character in the sequel, he filed suit against Warner Bros.
in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. Whitmill claimed that the tattoo sported by Stu amounted to copyright infringement, and sought not only damages but also an injunction against the film’s release.
Well, the film was released after Judge Catherine Perry denied the injunction and, like the original, made a ton of money (sorry, no refunds). What is likely to happen here is that Warner Bros. will have to pay and pay and pay for using the mark, which is in fact registered with the US Patent and Trademark Office (here it is). This might not be too difficult for the studio. Then again, WB is certainly not in the business of giving up money it doesn’t have to.
Copyright and trademark are the main intellectual property rights at issue. Copyright registration for unique work is automatic in the United States, and these rights can be transferred (i.e., in a contract). There doesn’t appear to be any contract transferring the rights to Tyson or Warner Bros. prior to the production of the film. For this mistake, WB might pay dearly. By the same token, Tyson is a public figure, and as such may fall into a certain ‘parody’ exception that can destroy any chance of suing for copyright infringement. This will certainly be a tricky case for IP attorneys to solve. Whitmill has rights in the design, Tyson has rights in his persona and celebrity, WB has rights, and well you get the picture…You gotta fight for your rights. Just don’t fight Mike Tyson.
Whitmill v. Warner Bros. Pictures is expected to go to trial February 2012. Stay tuned!