Monkey Owns Its Selfie and Deserves Its Copyright, PETA Claims

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 23, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When it comes to protecting animal rights, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals doesn't monkey around. Their message is simple: "Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment." Oh, and they should have access to intellectual property rights, too. Yep, according to a PETA lawsuit in San Francisco, animals should have the ability to copyright works they create.

In particular, PETA is looking to have a macaque monkey who took a world-famous selfie declared copyright owner of the photos. You remember the photos -- the ones taken when an Indonesian monkey named Naruto grabbed nature photographer David Slater's unattended camera, smiled, and began posing for the camera. Slater threatened to sue Wikipedia when they published the photo and now PETA is suing Slater, arguing that Naruto should be declared the photo's author -- and that PETA should administer the profits from the photo on the monkey's behalf.

Pro Bonobo Representation

PETA has long been interested in issues effecting monkeys -- the group became famous after it brought attention to experimentation on macaque monkeys in Silver Spring, Maryland. This is probably, however, the group's first foray into the intersection of animal rights and intellectual property law. PETA's complaint argues that "Naruto has the right to own and benefit from the copyright" just as a human would.

Surely copyright protections aren't available to animals, right? According to PETA's suit, "authorship" in the Copyright Act, "is sufficiently broad so as to permit the protections of the law to extend to any original work, including those created by Naruto," just as any human would.

It's true that the Copyright Act protects "original works of authorship" generally; there's no language limiting authorship to humans. The Act does, however, refer repeatedly to a "person's copyright" and refers to "rightsholders" as persons in relation to restored works. Generally, macaque monkeys aren't recognized as legal persons -- but hey, there's always a chance to set precedent.

Animals on the Stand

This isn't PETA's first time litigating on behalf of animals. In 2011, PETA sued SeaWorld for violating the Thirteenth Amendment. The water-park-slash-whale-prison was unconstitutionally holding orcas as slaves, they argued. (The suit was dismissed.)

Other animal advocacy groups have gotten closer to victory. An attempt by the Nonhuman Rights Project to get habeas relief for a pair of confined chimpanzees was dismissed this year, but not outright. The court recognized that "efforts to extend legal rights" to nonhumans are "understandable" and perhaps likely, given evolving societal mores. Following advocacy by the Great Ape Project, Spain's parliament recently granted basic rights to great apes (the rights to life and freedom, not intellectual property).

Still, despite some progress on nonhuman legal rights, we don't expect primates in the patent office anytime soon. Neither should PETA -- but that won't stop them from trying.

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