Category: The Lighter Side

The Lighter Side: Copyright Ownership Is No Monkey Business

The Lighter Side: Copyright Ownership Is No Monkey Business

We all knew this day was inevitable. A US appeals court is currently hearing an argument between a monkey and a photographer – the dispute centring on who owns copyright in a “selfie” that the monkey snapped in 2008. It embarrasses us to have to say so, but we must stress: every sentence in this article is a matter of verified fact – not fiction.

In 2011, the photographer (Slater) travelled to Indonesia to photograph the monkeys. He set up his camera on a tripod with a remote trigger attached and then sat and watched as the monkeys approached the camera and started taking “selfies”. Slater assumed that he was the owner of the copyright in those photos as he had been the person to set up the camera and engineer the shots. A selection of photographs was published by Slater in a book titled “Wildlife Personalities”.

At this point, PETA entered the fray and argued that the monkey (who they decided to name “Naruto”) should be assigned the copyright in the photographs and be entitled to all royalties. PETA argued to be appointed administrators of the royalties received and to use that money for conservation purposes. The court held that copyright law does not extend its protection to animals and therefore no assignment can take place. Undeterred, PETA has taken the matter on appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court.

What do the experts say?

This story has enjoyed widespread publicity in the popular press, and a battalion of armchair legal experts has joined-in the debate. Many argue that, because the author of the photographs is not a person, no copyright can subsist in the photograph. This is irrespective of who owned the camera that took the photo.

On the other side of the fence, other primates (we hasten to add: all of whom are human) have argued that Mr Slater is the rightful owner of the copyright in the works because he is the one who set up the camera taking into account lighting, exposure and other technical aspects. As such he is the creator and author of the work.

The United States Copyright Office clarified its position on this in 2014 by stating that an animal is not a legal person and cannot own copyright in a work. This was further echoed in the UK when the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) which adopted the identical position.

So where does this leave Naruto? Is he the rightful owner of the copyright of the selfies? Will he receive royalties? If so: will his children and grandchildren will be entitled to receive the royalties on Naturo’s passing? Is this entire matter a speciesist conspiracy? We end by highlighting a few of the infamous pronouncements that emerged in these legal proceedings:

  • Judge William Orrick (on expressing his irritation with the recalcitrant monkey not appearing in court in person) – “it’s as if he doesn’t care”
  • Angela Dunning, the lawyer for Slater’s publisher – “I know for a fact that [the monkey in the photograph] is a female and it’s the wrong age. Surely it matters that the right monkey is suing me?”