Tattoos, Copyright, and Fair Use: The Netflix vs. Joe Exotic Tattoo Case

Tattoos, Copyright, and Fair Use: The Netflix vs. Joe Exotic Tattoo Case

In the ever-evolving landscape of copyright law, one recent case stands out as a fascinating intersection of art, pop culture, and intellectual property rights. The lawsuit in question involves a tattoo artist, Molly Cramer, her unique creation inspired by the infamous Joe Exotic from Netflix’s “Tiger King,” and the streaming giant Netflix itself. The lawsuit centers on allegations of copyright infringement and raises important questions about the fair use doctrine under copyright law.

The Origins of the Joe Exotic Tattoo

The story begins in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when tattoo parlors, including Molly Cramer’s, were temporarily closed to prevent the spread of the virus. Facing financial uncertainty, Cramer devised a creative promotion: customers who purchased gift certificates for future tattoo services could vote on their favorite design, and the winning design would be inked onto her husband’s thigh.

Inspired by the widespread popularity of “Tiger King” during the initial lockdown, Cramer created a tattoo design featuring Joe Exotic surrounded by floating coronavirus symbols, a can of Lysol, and a toilet paper banner that humorously read “Quarantine 2020.” Cramer believed that Joe Exotic’s notoriety would attract public attention and drive the sale of gift certificates. She was right; the promotion brought in nearly $4,000 in revenue, and her husband became the canvas for the winning design.

Netflix’s Involvement and Copyright Infringement Claims

Fast forward to November 2021 when Netflix released a second season of “Tiger King.” The first episode featured a montage that included clips from the first season and showcased the global reaction to the show. In this montage, Netflix briefly displayed an image of Cramer’s Joe Exotic tattoo, which had been originally posted on her Facebook page.

When Cramer’s demand for $10 million in compensation for the unauthorized use of her tattoo was rejected, she filed a lawsuit against Netflix for copyright infringement. She argued that Netflix had used her copyrighted work without her permission, and she sought damages for the alleged infringement.

The Fair Use Defense

Netflix, however, argued that their use of the tattoo image fell within the boundaries of fair use, a legal doctrine that allows limited use of copyrighted material without permission for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research. To determine whether fair use applied, the court considered four key factors:

  1. Purpose and Character of the Use: Netflix’s defense strongly emphasized that their use of the tattoo image was transformative. They contended that by including the image in a montage depicting the public’s reaction to Joe Exotic, they had created something new with a different purpose and character. The court agreed, viewing Netflix’s use as criticism, comment, or reporting, which aligns with the fair use doctrine.
  1. The Nature of the Copyrighted Work: While both parties agreed that the tattoo design was a creative work, the court gave this factor limited weight since Netflix’s use was considered transformative under the first factor. 
  1. Amount and Substantiality of the Portion Used: Netflix’s brief display of the tattoo image for less than 3 seconds, along with seven other images on the screen, led the court to conclude that the third factor favored fair use. The use of the entire image was deemed appropriate to Netflix’s transformative purpose.
  1. Effect on the Potential Market: Netflix successfully argued that their use did not impact the potential market for Cramer’s tattoo business. Since Cramer’s business involved selling tattoos and gift cards, and there was no evidence that fewer people were seeking her services due to Netflix’s brief display of the tattoo, the fourth factor supported fair use.


Ultimately, the court sided with Netflix and granted their motion to dismiss the case on fair use grounds. The judge’s decision hinged on the transformative nature of Netflix’s use of the tattoo image, which was deemed critical to their depiction of the public’s reaction to Joe Exotic in “Tiger King.” This case serves as a reminder that the fair use doctrine can play a crucial role in copyright disputes, especially in cases where transformative use and minimal impact on the market are evident.

While this particular case found in favor of Netflix, it also underscores the complexities and nuances of copyright law, leaving room for ongoing discussions about how creators’ rights intersect with popular culture and transformative works in the digital age.

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