Finally, no more monkey business: “Selfie” monkey will not be granted ownership of photos


posted Friday, January 8, 2016 at 12:04 PM EDT


Back in 2011, nature photographer David Slater set up his camera for a female Celebes crested macaque to use (although his story of what exactly transpired has changed over the years). The monkey proceeded to use Slater's camera to capture self-portraits that news media outlets eventually picked up on. Wikimedia Commons decided that the photos are public domain because they were taken by a monkey, not a person. Slater enters into a costly legal battle with Wikimedia, but the US Copyright Office agrees with Wikimedia that Slater didn’t create the work, and therefore cannot be the copyright holder. The case wasn't over yet, however, as PETA became involved and sued on behalf of the monkey, who they claim should be the copyright owner and beneficiary of the selfies. With a ruling earlier this week, however, it appears that non-humans truly cannot own copyrights, so the monkey can’t own the photos.

A new decision provided on Wednesday by US district judge William Orrick to dismiss the case, saying that the monkey cannot be the copyright owner of the photos, has a couple of important consequences. First of all, the case is finally over (for now). Secondly, this determines that while the protection of laws can apply to non-human animals, only humans are protected by copyright laws.

As PETA claimed in their newly-dismissed lawsuit, the monkey had made the decision to press the shutter and understood the connection between his pressing the shutter, the camera making sounds, and the shutter releasing. Therefore, they argued, the monkey should be the one to benefit from any income accrued to Slater for the photos. 

One of the famous self-portraits by a female Celebes crested macaque captured using Slater's equipment. This photo continues to exist in the public domain.

Meanwhile, Wikimedia Commons still has the monkey selfie photographs in the public domain as they continue to side with the monkey and the US Copyright Office maintains that it cannot register works that aren’t created by humans. Not only can they not register photos taken by monkeys, they also can’t register works by “plants, robots, ghosts, and ‘divine beings.’

Nonetheless, according to PetaPixel, Judge Orrick has allowed PETA to “to file an amended lawsuit,” which PETA intends to do.

Supposing that the entire scene and photo was envisioned and set up by Slater, does he deserve to be granted ownership of the images despite not pressing the shutter? What actually counts as creation of an image? Is it everything, including pressing the shutter, or is it having an idea and creating the situation in which that idea can be captured? It appears that legally, you have to press the shutter. And be human. Readers, what do you think about this particular case and also what the requirements of content ownership should be? 

Somewhere out there, the "selfie" monkey may still be roaming Indonesia, perhaps looking for a new lawyer for when she takes her case to kangaroo court.

(Seen via The Guardian)