Court Finds Monkey Can't Own Selfie Copyright

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on January 07, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Intellectual property law for now remains the domain of humans exclusively. A monkey cannot own the copyright to his selfie, a federal judge ruled yesterday.

An Indonesian macaque does not own the world-famous image he snapped of himself in 2011, District Judge William Orrick decided. In a tentative opinion issued Wednesday in federal court in San Francisco, he wrote that there is "no indication" that the Copyright Act extends to animals, according to National Public Radio.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

The photo in question was taken in 2011 on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi with a camera owned by a nature photographer. But David Slater didn't take the photo, the black crested macaque did it himself.

Controversy about who owned the photo prompted People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to sue Slater, the photographer, on behalf of the animal. They named the monkey Naruto and filed papers arguing that the macaque had rights to the photo that would be administered by the organization.

Some say that because the monkey took the photo himself, no one owns the image. But Slater resisted that view and he has a British copyright to support his position that the photo belongs to him.

Last year the US Copyright Office issued policy guidance stipulating that it would register copyrights only for works produced by human beings. It cited monkey photographs and elephant murals as examples of works produced by animals which would not qualify for intellectual property protections.

If Slater did not take the photo then he did not produce the photo, many say. But his setting up the situation that allowed for the shot is also arguably a kind of production.

Straight out of Dr. Seuss

Slater apparently has a sense of humor about the suit, and his filings are reportedly a hoot. Replete with puns, it poked fun at the notion of animal copyright and asked the court to dismiss PETA's claim.

"The only pertinent fact in this case is that Plaintiff is a monkey suing for copyright infringement," Slater's lawyer wrote. "[I]magining a monkey as the copyright 'author' in Title 17 of the United States Code is a farcical journey Dr. Seuss might have written."

The judge seemed to agree with the photographer and perhaps even be infected by the tone of his filings. "I'm not the one to weigh in on this. This is an issue for Congress and the President," Orrick reportedly said from the bench.

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