Should a Monkey Own the Rights to His Selfie Photo?

All David Slater wanted to do was take interesting photographs of endangered monkeys. But he ended up in a life-altering lawsuit over whether he or a monkey owns the rights to one of those photos.

Slater is a British wildlife photographer, and in 2011 he traveled to Sulawesi in Indonesia to photograph crested macaques. He compiled his photos into a self-published book called “Wildlife Personalities.” One of the pictures Slater included was a smiling close-up of a macaque known as Naruto.

While on his Sulawesi visit, Slater set his camera down in a clearing, positioning it so the monkeys could have access. As he tells it, they “were quite mischievous jumping all over my equipment, and it looked like they were already posing for the camera when one hit the button.”

Naruto managed to snap quite a handsome selfie – and it’s become a worldwide sensation.

One day in 2014, Slater noticed that Wikipedia Commons was allowing users free access to the photo of Naruto. When he asked them to take the photo down, they refused, asserting that no one owned the copyright to a photo an animal took.

Slater’s company, Wildlife Personalities Ltd, does, in fact, own a British copyright for the photos in his book — including the one of Naruto. And Slater believes he ought to be the one who owns any and all worldwide rights. He’d like people to stop downloading and using the photo of Naruto for free.

After Salter raised the issue to Wikipedia, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals decided to join the fray. They sued Slater and his company on Naruto’s behalf, seeking a court order that would give it the right to manage proceeds of sales of that photo for Naruto’s benefit.

“The facts are that I was the intellect behind the photos, I set the whole thing up,” Slater told The Guardian. “A monkey only pressed a button of a camera set up on a tripod — a tripod I positioned and held throughout the shoot.”

But PETA disagreed with Slater’s legal stance.

Crested Black Macaque

“The [copyright] act grants copyright to authors of original works, with no limit on species,” PETA attorney Jeffery Kerr told The Guardian in 2015. “Copyright law is clear: It’s not the person who owns the camera, it’s the being who took the photograph. ‘

The long, arduous legal journey has caused Slater considerable difficulty. He says now that the multi-year litigation has left him broke.

‘Everything I did to try and highlight the plight of the monkeys has backfired on my private life,”¯ Slater told The Telegraph. “I’ve had my life ruined.”

In 2015, the U.S. Copyright Office updated its policies. Among the changes was a section stipulating that it registers copyrights only for works produced by human beings. Works produced by animals, therefore, legally cannot quality for copyright protection.

Despite it all, Slater says his original intent — to being attention to the plight of the disappearing Indonesian monkeys — has been realized.

Black Macaque

“No one had heard of these monkeys six years ago, they were down to the last thousands,” Slater told The Telegraph. “The locals used to roast them, but now they love them, they call it the ‘selfie monkey.’ Tourists are now visiting and people see there is a longer-term benefit to the community than just shooting a monkey.”

If there’s anything good coming out of this case, it’s that courts now seriously consider the question of whether animals have certain rights. Where once such notions would have been laughed out of court, that’s not an automatic occurence anymore.

Certainly, PETA is likely to lose this case when all appeals are exhausted. And some animal rights legal experts believe PETA could better choose its battles.

“It trivializes the terrible problems of needless animal slaughter and avoidable animal exploitation worldwide for lawyers to focus so much energy and ingenuity on whether monkeys own the copyright in selfies taken under these contrived circumstances,” Harvard Law professor Lawrence Tribe told The Guardian. All things considered, I must agree with Professor Tribe.

The case remains with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. A decision should come soon.

What do you think, Care2 readers? Does Naruto deserve the proceeds from the sales of the selfie he took, or should they belong to Slater? Let us know in the comments.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

168 comments

Ruth S
Ruth S6 months ago

Really??

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Marie W
Marie W10 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hillabout a year ago

Animals have no rights. US citizens are the only ones that the US Constitution give rights.

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Edith B
Edith Babout a year ago

Surely PETA could m make better use of its funds.

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Inez w
vanessa wabout a year ago

You (the author) has skewed the issue...
The main issue being that a female monkey took the picture, yet the monkey the damn messed up PETA used to sue the guy was a male.
They couldn't even get the right moneky ffs!
“I know for a fact that [the monkey in the photograph] is a female and it’s the wrong age,” he said. “I’m bewildered at the American court system. Surely it matters that the right monkey is suing me.”
Add to that the VERY dangerous precedent we are possibly starting here, what with animals having rights over images in photos, all hell could break loose if it were up to the damn PETA.
Also, you have thoroughly failed to mention just how badly this has affected Slater and bankrupted him.... From July 1027, UK Guardian:
David Slater could not afford the air fare to San Francisco to attend the hearings. Nor can he afford to replace his broken camera equipment, or pay the attorney who has been defending him since the crested black macaque sued him in 2015, and is exploring other ways to earn an income. “It wasn’t serendipitous monkey behavior,” he said. “It required a lot of knowledge on my behalf, a lot of perseverance, sweat and anguish, and all that stuff.” Slater has been embroiled in years of arcane legal wrangling over the nature of au

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Margie F
Margie FOURIEabout a year ago

What a petty situation and I really thought PETA, although I have heard to the contrary, should have better things to concentrate on.

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Ruth S
Ruth Sabout a year ago

Good grief! The monkey doesn't care and couldn't profit from it anyway!! This is silly. Thanks.

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Peggy B
Peggy Babout a year ago

TYFS

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ANA MARIJA R
ANA MARIJA Rabout a year ago

PETA could better choose its battles...

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Angela K
Angela Kabout a year ago

This question I can not take seriously. Not because of the animals, but the content. ALL animals on this planet fight nowadays for their bare survival.... because of food, habitat loss and human hunters...... the one species more, the other less.
From this point of view, this question is grotesque and ridiculous and completely unimportant

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