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Monkey Cannot Own Copyright To Viral Selfie, Says Federal Judge

“This is an issue for Congress and the president. If they think animals should have the right of copyright they're free ... under the Constitution to do that."
Who owns the copyright to this monkey-snapped selfie? The question has sparked a heated debate.
Who owns the copyright to this monkey-snapped selfie? The question has sparked a heated debate.

It was the selfie seen around the world; a toothy snap taken inadvertently by a grinning macaque monkey.

As the selfie went viral, a question arose: Just who owned the copyright to this extraordinary photograph -- the monkey, the photographer whose camera was left unattended or the public?

On Wednesday, a federal judge in San Francisco added a voice of authority to the heated debate, ruling that the monkey does not have ownership of the selfie

U.S. District Judge William Orrick said in a tentative opinion that “while Congress and the president can extend the protection of law to animals as well as humans, there is no indication that they did so in the Copyright Act,” The Associated Press reported.

“I’m not the person to weigh into this," Orrick said, per Ars Technica. “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."

The story of the monkey selfie began in 2011 when British nature photographer David Slater was in Sulawesi, Indonesia, taking photographs of endangered crested macaques.

The photographer left his camera unattended on a tripod for a few moments, and the curious animals snatched the device and began playing with it. 

It was then that a macaque named Naruto snapped the famous selfie of himself.

Since then, a battle for the copyright of the photo has raged.

Slater contends that the copyright of the image belongs to him. He has taken issue with people freely distributing the photo, saying he's suffered financial losses since no one's paying him royalties. 

When Slater asked Wikimedia Commons to remove the photograph from its online collection, Wikimedia refused, claiming the photo belonged to the public domain as it was taken by an animal and not a human.

Last year, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) upped the stakes in the debate when it filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Naruto seeking copyright ownership of the selfie.

“While the claim of authorship by species other than homo sapiens may be novel, ‘authorship’ under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq., is sufficiently broad so as to permit the protections of the law to extend to any original work, including those created by Naruto,” PETA said in the suit.

Last September, Slater said he was “angry as well as sad” by PETA’s actions. 

“This makes animal welfare charities look bad which saddens me, deflecting away from the animals and onto stunts like this,” he wrote on Facebook.

On Wednesday, Orrick said he would dismiss PETA's suit in an upcoming order, calling the group's argument a “stretch,” per Ars Technica.

PETA said it plans to continue fighting for Naruto’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,” said Jeff Kerr, a PETA attorney. “This case is also exposing the hypocrisy of those who exploit animals for their own gain.”

In 2014, the U.S. Copyright Office said works “produced by nature, animals or plants” cannot be granted copyright protection, and are thus in the public domain. 

However, PETA argued that the copyright office policy “is only an opinion,” saying the U.S. Copyright Act itself does not contain language barring non-humans from owning copyrights.

“The act grants copyright to authors of original works, with no limit on species,” said Kerr last year, per AP. “Copyright law is clear: It's not the person who owns the camera, it's the being who took the photograph.”

 

Earlier on HuffPost:

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