Jaw Dropping Legal Issue: PETA Goes Bananas Over Copyright Protection for Monkey Selfies

September 29, 2015

It all began within the Tangkoko Reserve on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi when David Slater, a British nature photographer, left his tripod unattended. Unbeknownst to Mr. Slater, Naruto, a 6-year-old crested macaque, took the opportunity to capture his best side with a series of photographs he took of himself (“selfies”).
After Mr. Slater published his book within the United States, which included copies of the monkey selfies taken by Naruto, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (“PETA”) along with Antje Engelhardt, Ph.D.—a German primatologist and ethologist who studies the crested macaques’ behavior on Sulawesi—brought a lawsuit on behalf of Naruto.
PETA’s main argument in its Complaint is that Mr. Slater, Mr. Slater’s publishing company, Blurb, Inc., and Mr. Slater’s personal company, Wildlife Personalities, Ltd. have infringed upon Naruto’s copyright for his selfies. In PETA’s complaint, PETA pleads that in addition to the lack of assistance by Mr. Slater, Naruto’s biological characteristics and behavior support the contention that Naruto created the monkey selfies. Naruto, along with all crested macaques, are vision dominant mammals who intentionally use their grasping hands and opposable thumbs to complete a purposeful action. Furthermore, Naruto’s need to forage for food in the nearby human village has made him accustom to viewing his image being reflected in a variety of surfaces ranging from car mirrors to the camera lenses of tourists, videographers, and the like. Therefore, since there is no precedent limiting copyright ownership to human beings, all proceeds accrued from the use of his monkey selfies should be donated to the well being of Naruto and his fellow crested macaques, as well as the preservation of their habitat.
Although Mr. Slater has yet to file any pleadings in the lawsuit, Mr. Slater has spoken with various media sources, such as the International Business Times, to support his claim that he is the orchestrator of the monkey selfies taken by Naruto. According to Mr. Slater, he positioned his camera on a tripod and essentially set-up the entire opportunity for Naruto to take a selfie. Thus since Naruto only pressed a button on Mr. Slater’s camera, Mr. Slater’s copyright ownership and his rights to accrue money from the selfies should be respected.
The legal community has also expressed its opinions about monkey selfies. David Favre, who is a law professor at Michigan State University, expressed to the Associated Press that this lawsuit presents “a cutting edge legal question” in copyright law. However, Laurence Tribe, a Harvard University law professor, expressed to the Associated Press that “[i]t trivializes the terrible problems of needless animal slaughter and avoidable animal exploitation worldwide for lawyers to focus so much energy and ingenuity on whether monkeys own the copyright in selfies taken under these contrived circumstances.”
Furthermore, the Third Edition of the United States Copyright Practices Compendium addressed the requirement within the Copyright Act for human authorship. Section 313.2 provides that to satisfy the requirement, a work must be created by a human being, and specifies that the Copyright Office will not register “a photograph taken by a monkey.” Although as a lawyer with PETA noted, “the copyright office policy ‘is only an opinion,’ and the U.S. Copyright Act does not contain language limiting copyrights to humans.”
As of September 21, 2015, only the Complaint and Proposed Summons against Mr. Slater, Blurb, Inc., and Wildlife Personalities, Ltd. have been filed with the California Northern District Court. The Court is likely to experience even more jaw dropping arguments as the lawsuit continues on, and extensive controversial debate between the parties and outside observers as to whether Naruto and his community should be rewarded for his now famous selfies.

If Naruto succeeds in this lawsuit a legal precedent will be set within copyright law, since “[i]t will be the first time that a nonhuman animal is declared the owner of property.”

For further discussion on Naruto’s potential copyright ownership in his photographs, see “PETA Monkey Selfie Lawsuit: Animal Rights Group Wants Crested Macaque To Own Copyright For Photos,” “PETA Sues on Behalf of Monkey for Selfie Copyright,” “This Selfie May Set a Legal Precedent,” and “PETA Sues To Give Monkey The Copyright Of Selfie Photos.”