‘Monkey Selfies’ bring IP law into question in San Francisco

Photographer Donald Graham might be having a tough time enforcing his copyright as we reported on Tuesday (5 January), but a 6 year old macaque monkey is having an even tougher time protecting his work in a US court.

Yesterday (6 January), a federal judge in San Francisco declined to recognise Naruto the monkey’s intellectual property rights over a series of ‘selfie’ photographs he snapped in 2011. US district Judge William Orrick had been asked by lawyers from People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to award Naruto monetary damages for copyright infringement by British wildlife photographer David Slater. 

Slater had been on a shoot on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi in 2011 when he left his camera unattended for a few minutes. The creatively-minded macaque seized on the opportunity to grab Slater’s camera and pose for several ‘selfies’. Slater went on to publish pictures from Naruto’s photoshoot in a book called ‘Wildlife Personalities’ through self-publishing company Blurb.

In a lawsuit filed in September 2015 against Slater and Blurb, PETA contended that Naruto should be recognised as the copyright owner under the US Copyright Act. The Act grants copyright ownership of a ‘selfie’ to its author and PETA claims Naruto “authored the Monkey Selfies by his independent, autonomous actions in examining and manipulating Slater’s unattended camera.”

For his part, Slater argues his company Wildlife Personalities Ltd. is the true copyright owner as he facilitated the photoshoot. He is seeking to have this British copyright honoured worldwide despite the widespread availability of the ‘Monkey Selfies’ which have gone viral online.

Judge Orrick held that there was no indication in the Copyright Act that the protection of the law in this area should be extended to animals:

“This is an issue for Congress and the president. If they think animals should have the right of copyright they’re free, I think, under the Constitution, to do that.”

Current guidelines from the US Copyright Office, state that it will only register copyright for works produced by human beings. But PETA lawyer Jeffrey Kerr has insisted that this “is only an opinion” and the language of the Copyright Act itself does not limit protection to human authors.

It remains to be seen whether Congress and the President will answer Judge Orrick’s call to clarify this point of intellectual property law.

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