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Who Really Owns Mike Tyson’s Tattoo?

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Have you heard the one about the tattoo artist, the heavyweight champ and the movie studio? It goes like this: S. Victor Whitmill, the tattoo artist who put the Maori-inspired ink on Mike Tyson's face, sued Warner Bros. to delay or even prevent the release of The Hangover: Part II. Whitmill says that Tyson's tattoo, one of the most famous in the worlds of sports and entertainment, is his (Whitmill's) intellectual property, and its unauthorized reproduction in the film—on the face of actor Ed Helms—amounts to copyright infringement.

On May 24, Warner Bros. survived the preliminary injunction, with a Missouri court ruling that the film could open, as scheduled, on May 26. But as reported by Entertainment Weekly, the case is not settled, and according to a statement from Whitmill's lawyers, the judge in the case found "a 'strong likelihood of success on the merits' of [Whitmill's] copyright infringement claim."

A New York Times article noted that "The suit isn’t frivolous ... legal experts say. They contend the case could offer the first rulings on tricky questions about how far the rights of the copyright holder extend in creations that are, after all, on someone else’s body." Whitmill copyrighted the design in 2003.

Some would disagree with those legal experts, although their voices are not likely to be heard in a United States courtroom: The Maori of New Zealand. Whitmill based Tyson's tattoo on the Maori's traditional facial tattoo, known as a moko, and Maoris are crying frivolity, if not hypocrisy.

"It is astounding that a Pakeha [non-Maori] tattooist who inscribes an African American's flesh with what he considers to be a Maori design has the gall to claim ... that design as his intellectual property," said Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, author of Mau Moko: The World of Maori Tattoo, as quoted by the New Zealand Herald News. "The tattooist has an incredible arrogance to assume he has the intellectual right to claim the design form of an indigenous culture that is not his."

The Herald News went on to describe the backlash among Maoris on twitter, quoting a post by Tau Henare, a member of New Zealand's parliament: "The tattooist moaning about the breach of copyright copied it off Maori. Bit rich to be claiming someone stole his 'design'."