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Miles Davis Tattoo Takes Center Stage As Copyright Trial Over Fair Use Kicks Off

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Did a celebrity tattoo artist violate copyright law when she inked a photographer’s portrait of jazz legend Miles Davis onto the arm of a friend? A jury is set to the decide that question in a trial set to kick off Tuesday.

Photographer Jeffrey B. Sedlik filed his lawsuit back in 2021 against Katherine Von Drachenberg – better known as Kat Von D, a celebrity tattoo artist who rose to prominence in the 2000s on her TLC reality show “fLA Ink.” He claimed she infringed his 1989 image of Davis by using it as the basis for a tattoo.

After years of litigation – and a U.S. Supreme Court case over Andy Warhol that changed the legal landscape midway through – attorneys for Sedlik and Von D will head to a Los Angeles federal courthouse Tuesday for a jury trial that will settle the dispute once and for all.

Sedlik, who calls his photo “world-famous,” has argued that Von D clearly broke the law when she chose to “precisely replicate every aspect of the iconic Miles Davis portrait in the form of a tattoo.” Von D, meanwhile, says she only used the image as a reference and that her tattoo is protected by copyright law’s so-called fair use doctrine, which allows people to re-use protected works in certain situations.

Initially, Judge Dale S. Fischer seemed inclined to side with Von D on a key question: Whether she had “transformed” the photo into something new. In a May 2022 ruling, the judge said Von D had “changed its appearance to create what she characterizes as adding movement and a more melancholy aesthetic.”

But the case got a legal shakeup a year later, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a major ruling on fair use. In that decision, the justices said that the late Andy Warhol had violated a photographer’s copyrights years earlier when he used her images of Prince to create one of his distinctive screen prints – a decision that was widely interpreted as making it harder to prove fair use.

After the Warhol ruling came out, Judge Fischer ruled against Von D on that same key question of “transformative.” Citing the new Supreme Court precedent, the judge ruled that simply putting the same image in a new context and claiming new aesthetics was not enough to count as a fair use.

But even after that ruling, the overall question of fair use must still be decided by the jury at the trial set to kick off Tuesday. Jurors will be tasked with deciding whether Von D made “commercial” use of Sedlik’s image – a tough question, since she inked her friend free-of-charge but also promoted the work on her social media accounts. They must also decide whether her use of the image hurt Sedlik’s ability to license the image himself, another key question in any fair use case.

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