Monkey selfie case: Monkey business?

In 2011, on the small Indonesian island of Sulawesi, a monkey named Naruto stole a photographer’s camera and took hundreds of selfies. Some of those selfies were worthy of publication. The British photographer, David Slater, published and sold copies of the image in a book. Now, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit must decide whether Slater’s actions infringed Naruto’s copyrights. They must answer one all-important question: Can a monkey hold copyrights to a selfie?

It might just be monkey business.

The case comes on appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, where the Court dismissed the case, stating that the Copyright Act does not extend to animals. “There is no mention of animals anywhere in the act,” nor a single case that extends the definition of authorship to animals, Judge William Orrick stated, adding that Congress or the President could determine otherwise.

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which filed the case on Naruto’s behalf, appealed. We now await the decision of the Ninth Circuit.

What if PETA wins?

While the court chuckled during some of the argument, and asked multiple times, “What is the injury here?” we cannot assume we are at the end of the road for Naruto’s claim. After all, no case like it has ever made its way through our nation’s courts.

Should the court rule in favor of PETA, there would be some interesting implications in copyright law. While most animals don’t take their own pictures, the next logical question is: Does an animal have a right of publicity? If so, then you’ll have to be careful next time you take a picture of Fido and want to use it in a book or other commercial medium. (Note that this case is limited to questioning whether an animal who takes its own picture owns the copyrights as the picture’s author).

Another thing to watch: PETA sued not only Slater, but also his online publisher, Blurb. Should PETA win their argument against Blurb, then online software services could face infringement for hosting third party content. But that’s a discussion for another day.

All a publicity stunt?

Some argue that PETA is using this case as merely a publicity stunt, but PETA has a goal of extending and protecting animal rights. Meanwhile, David Slater is broke from the legal dispute. As a conservation photographer, however, he speaks positively of the publicity’s impact on the macaque monkey and his species. After all, one of Slater’s purposes in taking pictures of the macaques was to share their plight. Local tribes no longer kill the macaque for food, a result of his book, the popularity of the selfie, and this lawsuit.

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