The face of Mike Tyson is at the centre of Hollywood's latest high-stakes intellectual property dispute, after the man who designed the ex-boxer's distinctive facial tattoo filed a lawsuit against the studio behind the sequel to The Hangover, claiming that film-makers have illegally reappropriated his artwork.
The tattoo designer S. Victor Whitmill has asked a federal court in Missouri to grant an injunction preventing Warner Brothers releasing the movie this month, citing what he calls the "unauthorised exploitation" of the design he inked around Tyson's left eye.
Trailers for the film, which is set in Thailand, suggest that the plot involves the character Stu Price, played by the comedian Ed Helms, waking up after a night out to discover that he has an identical tattoo to the boxer's.
According to Mr Whitmill, that breaches a copyright he took out on the tribal design in 2003. "When [he] created the Original Tattoo, Mr Tyson agreed that Mr Whitmill would own the artwork and thus, the copyright in the Original Tattoo," reads his lawsuit, which seeks to have release of the film blocked unless acceptable compensation can be agreed.
"Warner Bros Entertainment – without attempting to contact Mr Whitmill, obtain his permission, or credit his creation – has copied Mr Whitmill's Original Tattoo and placed it on the face of another actor," notes his court papers. "This unauthorised exploitation of the Original Tattoo constitutes copyright infringement." Attached to the lawsuit is a copy of his copyright registration for the so-called "Original Tattoo," along with a release form signed by Tyson at his Las Vegas studio in 2003, granting rights to the design.
Under US intellectual property law, copyright applies to all registered works depicted in films whether they are paintings on a wall, books quoted by a character, or songs on a soundtrack.
To stave off an injunction, the studio is expected to argue that they changed the design of the facial tattoo enough to prevent infringement, and that it was intended as a parody. They could also claim that its use in the film is "transformative," meaning it is depicted in a larger context and thus represents a "fair use".