There is No Room for Monkey Business in Copyright Law

January 13, 2016

Monkey CameraOn January 6th, U.S. District Judge William Orrick ruled that a rare crested macaque could not own a copyright to a photograph, because he is not human. The history of the case dates back to 2011, when wildlife photographer David Slater was on location in Indonesia. A crested macaque monkey named Naruto, came upon Slater and his camera, and used that camera to take a selfie (a picture of himself). Nearly five years later, the battle over the copyrights to that selfie continues, as P.E.T.A. steps in to fight on Naruto’s behalf.

Soon after the picture was taken, Naruto’s selfie quickly began circulating around the internet; leading Slater into a long disagreement with Wikimedia Commons, which hosted the image in the public domain. Slater argued he should own the rights to the photograph, as all the images were taken with his camera, with settings configured by him. On the other hand, Wikimedia argued the photograph was part of the public domain, because the monkey, and not Slater, was the owner of the picture. Before this disagreement could reach a resolution, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (P.E.T.A.) threw its hat in the ring, claiming the copyrights belonged to the monkey and suing Slater for copyright infringement.

The question of whether Naruto, Slater, or no one, would have a valid claim to copyright the photo was answered quite clearly by the Copyright Office in a new draft of the third edition of the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Practices, released in August 2014. The Compendium clearly states the Copyright Office will not register “works produced by nature, animals or plants” and will “refuse to register a claim if it determines that a human being did not create the work.” It even went so far as to list a photograph taken by a monkey, as an example of a work that lacks human authorship. Despite this, P.E.T.A. alleged Naruto owned the rights to the selfie, and that Slater infringed on those rights by publishing a book containing the image. The complaint requested Slater disgorge all “net proceeds from the sale, licensing and other commercial use of the Monkey Selfies.” The money would be used to benefit Naruto, his family and community of crested macaques, and the preservation of their habitat. In his ruling, Judge Orrick determined that while Congress and the president have the power to provide legal protections to both animals and humans, “there is no indication that they did so in the Copyright Act.” P.E.T.A. will be given an opportunity to amend the lawsuit, before it is completely dismissed, but this is likely to be the first of many cases that determine animals do not have legal standing.