The U.S. tattoo industry generates billions of dollars in annual revenue. Like the music, film, and publishing industries, it derives value from the creation of new, original works of authorship. But unlike rights holders in those more traditional creative industries, tattoo artists rarely assert formal legal rights in disputes over copying or ownership of the works they create. Instead, tattooing is governed by a set of nuanced, overlapping, and occasionally contradictory social norms enforced through informal sanctions. And in contrast to other creative communities that rely on social norms because of the unavailability of formal intellectual property protection, the tattoo industry opts for self-governance despite the comfortable fit of its creative output within the protections of the Copyright Act.
This Article relies on qualitative interview data drawn from more than a dozen face-to-face conversations with professionals in the tattoo industry. Based on those interviews, it offers a descriptive account of the social norms that have effectively displaced formal law within the tattoo community, provides a set of complementary cultural and economic explanations for the development of those norms, and outlines the broader implications of this research for intellectual property law and policy.