Twenty-one percent of adults in the United States — more than sixty-five million Americans — have at least one tattoo. For those under age forty, that percentage nearly doubles. Not surprisingly, the tattoo business is booming. By some estimates, the U.S. tattoo industry generates $2.3 billion in annual revenue. Once the mark of sailors, convicts, and circus performers, the tattoo has infiltrated mainstream society.
Despite its countercultural origins, the tattoo industry shares much in common with other, more familiar creative industries. Fundamentally, it capitalizes on market demand for original creative works. Yet as public goods, the value of those works is readily appropriable through copying. Predictably, copying is both a practical reality and a source of concern within the industry. But unlike their counterparts in most other creative industries, tattooers nearly uniformly reject formal legal mechanisms for adjudicating claims over ownership and copying. Although tattoos fall squarely within the protections of the Copyright Act, copyright law plays virtually no part in the day-to-day operation of the tattoo industry. Instead, tattooers rely on a set of informal social norms to structure creative production and mediate relationships within their industry.
Following in the tradition of earlier scholarship exploring the intersection of intellectual property law and social norms, But this Article differs from much of the prior work on intellectual property and social norms in two ways. First, the tattoo industry norms reported here represent the first example of market-driven informal alternatives to intellectual property law that emerged despite fully applicable formal protections. Unlike norms that emerge in the shadow of some barrier to meaningful intellectual property protection,this Article sets out with three objectives: to provide a descriptive account of the norms related to creative production within the tattoo industry; to explain both the industry’s choice to forego formal assertions of legal rights and the particular content of the norms it has embraced; and to consider the implications of this case study for intellectual property law and policy more generally.
But this Article differs from much of the prior work on intellectual property and social norms in two ways. First, the tattoo industry norms reported here represent the first example of market-driven informal alternatives to intellectual property law that emerged despite fully applicable formal protections. Unlike norms that emerge in the shadow of some barrier to meaningful intellectual property protection tattoo industry norms function as an informal system of community governance that developed despite an applicable body of formal law. And unlike norms governing nonmarket behavior, tattoo industry norms prevail despite the same profit motive characteristic of many creative fields.
Second, tattoo industry norms are unique because they must account for a more complex set of relationships than those observed in earlier case studies. Tattooers must establish norms that govern not only their interactions with each other, but with clients who play an important role in the creation and use of their works as well. Further complicating matters, aside from copying within their industry, tattooers are faced with the question of the propriety of copying outside of it. This overlapping complex of relationships between tattooers, clients, and the broader art world yields a correspondingly rich, nuanced, and perhaps contradictory set of creative norms.
Part I of this Article offers a brief history of the practice of tattooing — beginning with its widespread use in early civilizations, then turning to its colonial reincorporation into the West, and the recent emergence of the “tattoo renaissance. This Part will also introduce the basic structure and vocabulary of the contemporary tattoo industry.
After establishing the doctrinal applicability and practical irrelevance of formal copyright law to tattoos, Part II catalogs the norms that structure the tattoo industry. To develop this descriptive account, I conducted fourteen in-person qualitative interviews in early 2012 with tattooers throughout the United States, identified through snowball sampling relying on existing industry contacts. In terms of geography, gender, experience level, work environment, style, and clientele, these interviews capture a diverse, if not necessarily representative, cross section of perspectives within the tattoo community.
These interviews revealed five core norms. First, tattooers as a rule recognize the autonomy interests of their clients both in the design of custom tattoos and their subsequent display and use. Second, tattooers collectively refrain from reusing custom designs — that is, a tattooer who designs an image for a client will not apply that same image on another client. Third, tattooers discourage the copying of custom designs — that is, a tattooer generally will not apply another tattooer’s custom images to a willing client. Fourth, tattooers create and use pre-designed tattoo imagery, or “flash,” with the understanding that it will be freely reproduced. Finally, tattooers generally embrace the copying of works that originate outside of the tattoo industry, suchas paintings, photos, or illustrations. In some ways, these norms unintentionally echo familiar concepts from copyright law, but they differ from formal law in important respects as well.
Part III offers a number of complementary explanations for the content of tattoo industry norms and the industry’s reliance upon them. Both the culture and economics of the tattoo industry gave rise to its particular set of norms. Tattooers share a disdain for authority and a history of harsh legal regulation that renders them generally hostile to the legal system. Perhaps more importantly, as a deeply client-driven enterprise, the tattoo industry is sensitive to consumer expectations. Those expectations provide strong incentives for the development of norms in order to preserve the industry’s collective interest in the continued viability of the market for custom tattoos. Finally, tattoo norms also erect barriers to entry to the increasingly crowded field of tattooers, revealing the guild-like nature of the industry.
Part IV concludes by considering the broader lessons the tattoo industry offers for intellectual property law and policy. The tattoo industry’s success reveals the importance of customizing creative goods to deter widespread copying and of bundling easily copied creative goods with difficult-to-copy personal services.