Take-Two Interactive, parent company of WWE 2K publisher 2K Games, has been successfully sued by tattoo artist Catherine Alexander for the use of Randy Orton’s likeness – complete with reproduced tattoo sleeves – in WWE video games. The lawsuit was filed in 2018, and contained claims that 2K Games had used Alexander’s artwork without permission. The work is directly tattooed on Orton’s body, but was created and designed by Alexander.
The artistic work features unique skulls, tribal tattoos, a rose, and various insignia, and was custom-designed for Orton around 2008.
In the lawsuit, Alexander alleged that WWE offered her just US $450 for the use of her unique tattoo design – at the time, this was only related to a fake tattoo sleeve, to be sold as merchandise. This offer was turned down, but WWE continued to ‘merchandise’ the tattoos through the 2K video games.
To protect their use, Alexander filed the suit, alleging the in-game model of Randy Orton in the 2K Games series infringed on copyright. Take-Two argued this imagery came under ‘fair use’ laws – but this claim was shot down by the US District Court Southern District of Illinois.
Take-Two was ordered to pay US $3,750 in damages to Alexander.
This isn’t the first time that tattoos have caused a major issue for sports games – nor is it the first time they’ve caused a problem for 2K Games and Take-Two. In 2016, Take-Two was sued for reproducing tattoos from LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, in very similar circumstances. This case was unsuccessful, but did raise questions about image licenses and who exactly owns the rights to a tattoo once it’s imprinted on another person.
The company has also previously been forced to change tattoos in games – with former WWE wrestler CM Punk having multiple model tweaks to comply with copyright law. Most notably, the giant Pepsi tattoo on his left shoulder, and the Cobra Commander tattoo on his right shoulder, have needed to be removed in all WWE 2K releases. Typically, they are replaced with generic, colourful logos.
Alexander’s win in court is a major moment for the company, which has previously escaped serious litigation. While the amount won is fairly slim, it sets a precedent for future video game releases – which may now feature more tattoo tweaks or compensation for those involved. While tattoos exist in a nebulous rights realm, they are still technically original, proprietary artworks created by talented designers who should be compensated. In future, this lawsuit makes it more likely that they will be.