A macaque monkey who snapped clear, perfectly framed selfies that would have made the Kardashians proud still cannot own a copyright to the photos because it’s an animal, not a human, a federal judge in San Francisco said.
U.S. District Judge William Orrick said that Congress did not extend federal copyright law to animals. That means the monkey cannot control the rights to the photos and profit from their distribution.
The ruling came in a novel lawsuit filed last year by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that sought a court order allowing PETA to represent the monkey and let it administer all proceeds from the photos for the benefit of the monkey, which it identified as 6-year-old Naruto, and other crested macaques living in a reserve on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
The photos were taken during a 2011 trip to Sulawesi by British nature photographer David Slater. The monkey took the photos by “purposely pushing the shutter release multiple times, understanding the cause-and-effect relationship between pressing the shutter release, the noise of the shutter, and the change to his reflection in the camera lens,” PETA said in its lawsuit.
Slater said he was the brains behind the photos, setting up the tripod the camera was on and positioning and holding it throughout the shoot. He said the British copyright obtained for the photos by his company, Wildlife Personalities Ltd., should be honored worldwide. He moved to have PETA’s lawsuit dismissed, arguing that “monkey see, monkey sue is not good law.”
“A monkey, an animal-rights organization and a primatologist walk into federal court to sue for infringement of the monkey’s claimed copyright,” his attorneys wrote in court documents. “What seems like the setup for a punchline is really happening.”
PETA also named as a defendant Slater’s San Francisco-based self-publishing company Blurb, which published a book called “Wildlife Personalities” that includes the “monkey selfie” photos.
The photos have been widely distributed elsewhere by outlets, including Wikipedia, which contend that no one owns the copyright to the images because they were taken by an animal, not a person. Slater has said he is exploring legal action against some of those outlets.
Jeff Kerr, general counsel for PETA, said the organization will continue fighting for the monkey’s rights.
“Despite this setback, legal history was made today because we argued to a federal court why Naruto should be the owner of the copyright rather than been seen as a piece of property himself,” Kerr said. “This case is also exposing the hypocrisy of those who exploit animals for their own gain.”