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LeBron James' tattoos get NBA 2K16 maker sued for copyright infringement

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Lawsuit involves ink on NBA superstars and Kobe Bryant

Another sports video game publisher has run afoul of tattoo artists for rendering real ones on virtual players' bodies.

2K is in the dock this time, because of tattoos on former NBA 2K cover stars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, and players DeAndre Jordan, Eric Bledsoe and Kenyon Martin. 2K Games, its parent Take-Two Interactive and developing studio Visual Concepts were sued in federal court on Monday by Solid Oak Sketches, which owns the copyright on those designs. Solid Oak says it has licensing agreements with those players acknowledging those rights.

This is not the first time copyright law has come up regarding body ink and video games. But under the law, it remains a muddy subject because previous high-profile cases have all been settled.

THQ, the maker of the UFC's licensed video game until 2012, was sued that year by an Arizona tattoo parlor over body art appearing on the fighter Carlos Condit. Electronic Arts and the former running back Ricky Williams were sued over a tattoo appearing on his body on the cover of 2004's NFL Street. And most bizarrely, the makers of the 2011 film The Hangover 2 were sued by the person who designed Mike Tyson's distinctive face tattoo; a version of it appeared on Ed Helms' face in that movie as part of a running gag with the boxer.

Without a ruling at a district court level, it's both difficult to say which side might prevail or whether the lawyers' fees for finding out is worth it to either party. The plaintiff in the 2K case says the value of all the tattoos it owns that appear in the NBA 2K series is about $800,000, with about $250,000 of that attributable to to James' tattoos appearing on the cover of NBA 2K14. Though Bryant was the cover star of 2009's NBA 2K10, that value was not specifically broken out in the lawsuit's claims.

The suit mentions that the artists offered Take-Two a perpetual rights license for $1.1 million, which the company apparently refused. Take-Two Interactive, the publisher of the NBA 2K series, did not respond to The Hollywood Reporter, which first reported the lawsuit yesterday.

Electronic Arts in 2014 reached an agreement with backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick over the presentation of his distinctive tattoos in Madden NFL 15, mindful of the stink created by the Williams litigation and other cases.

Over the years, leagues have given licensees stylebooks full of high-quality photographs depicting players, for use in illustrating them for posters, advertising — and in video games.

But the issue has become enough of a concern that in 2014, the NFL players' union advised its members to to get copyright permissions when they got inked, for their own legal protection. EA Sports then adopted a policy of using real tattoos on athletes only if they secure the permission(s) of the artist(s) behind them.