Monkey see, monkey do. Monkey see camera, monkey take selfie.
Then, monkey finds himself at the center of a federal lawsuit, along with the photographer who stepped away from his equipment long enough for the crested black macaque and his friends to grab it and snap photos of themselves.
The Indonesian simian in question is Naruto, whose hilarious “Monkey Selfie” has become famous. And humans are going to ask a judge to determine whether he owns the picture.
That pretty much sums up the reaction of David J. Slater, the professional whose book Wildlife Personalities includes that classic shot along with the others he took during the same session.
PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – is suing on behalf of the monkey, claiming he is the author of his selfies and therefore has sole ownership rights. They filed suit in U. S. District Court in California, saying “While the claim of authorship by species other than homo sapiens may be novel, ‘authorship’ under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq., is sufficiently broad so as to permit the protections of the law to extend to any original work, including those created by Naruto.”
Slater, predictably, called the lawsuit ridiculous. “I am obviously bemused at PETA’s stunt but also angry as well as sad,” he wrote on Facebook, adding that he has worked with the organization in the past. “This makes animal welfare charities look bad, which saddens me, deflecting away from the animals and onto stunts like this.”
Meanwhile, Wikimedia, which hosts such web sites as Wikipedia, has added Naruto’s selfie to its free-to-use photos, claiming that it belongs in the public domain because animals can’t own copyrights.
What does the law say about this (you’re surely asking)?
To qualify for copyright protection in the United States, a piece of work must meet three criteria:
• It must be fixed in a tangible medium. In this case, that would be a photograph.
• It must be original.
• The work must have an “author.” And in the United States, the term “authorship” implies that the work comes from a human being. Materials produced solely by animals are not copyrightable.
So if the monkey doesn’t win ownership of the photo, can the human?
No, because the monkey cannot create a copyrightable work.
Therefore, the photograph immediately and forever falls into the public domain, and can be used by anyone, without permission.