The Case of the Monkey Selfie: Animals Can't Own Copyrights, Judge Rules

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Owning a copyright isn't monkey business, according to the court. Almost five years after PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) filed a federal lawsuit to give an endangered monkey the copyright for his viral selfies, U.S. District Judge William Orrick settled the matter—at least for now. The California judge tentatively ruled on Wednesday that, under the current law, animals cannot hold a copyright, though the protection could be extended to animals in the future.

The story of the famous selfies began in 2011, when photographer David Slater traveled to Indonesia and set up his camera on a tripod, hoping a monkey might stop by to snap a few photos. One female macaque did, and Slater distributed the picture as what he called "monkey selfies." Wikipedia eventually put up the pictures on the grounds that the images were in the public domain; the monkey was the creator of the images and animals can't hold copyright, so by their reasoning, the images were copyright-free. The U.S. copyright office agreed, saying in a 2014 report that "The Office will not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants" and that the image was in the public domain.

Still, Slater continued to claim that the British copyright owned by his company, Wildlife Personalities Ltd., should be upheld around the world. The photographer even sells signed prints of the portrait online.

While this should have been the end of the amusing altercation, animal activists stepped in and argued that the primate did in fact hold the copyright. Claiming to represent the 6-year-old monkey, Naruto, PETA filed a lawsuit against Slater and his self-publishing platform, Blurb.

PETA's lawyers insisted that copyright law does not explicitly state that the author of a work must be human. By their logic, Naruto should be receiving all funds from the picture, which would be used to care for Naruto and her reserve.

In a brief hearing in San Francisco, the judge referred to the argument as a "stretch" and says he will probably dismiss the case.

"I'm not the person to weigh into this," Orrick said. "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."

[h/t: Ars Technica]