Monkey ‘Selfie’ dispute settled
15th September 2017
In 2011 David Slater, a wildlife photographer, took a series of photos of macaque monkeys in Indonesia. Nothing particularly unusual about that, until one of the monkeys, named Naruto, started to use Mr Slater’s camera to take photos of himself.
The photos, in particular the ones of Naruto striking what appears to be a cheesy grin, became a bit of an internet sensation leading to a rather unusual legal battle revolving around who had the copyright to the photos; the monkey or Mr Slater.
Although the legal battle took place in the US, the case raised interesting questions relevant to most legal jurisdictions which recognise copyright about the basis of copyright and who’s creation the photographs were. In addition, the case also raised interesting questions about the extent to which animals are afforded legal rights.
Although the initial case was brought by Mr Slater against Wikipedia (to remove one of the selfie photos which had been displayed without his permission), the mantel was subsequently taken up by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who argued that the copyright belonged to Naruto.
In the US District court, District Judge Orrick dismissed PETA’s claim on the basis that the relevant US legislation was clearly not intended to extend protection to (and create rights for) animals. By doing so, the judge recognised that animals could potentially be afforded legal rights, but that this would have to be expressly and clearly stated in the relevant legislation, which was not the case here. However, the issue of whether Mr Slater had contributed sufficient skill and effort to be recognised as the author and obtain copyright protection was not directly dealt with in that judgment. In a UK context at least, there may have been a question about whether Mr Slater’s creative efforts (i.e. setting up a camera on a tripod) were sufficient to pass the threshold for the subsistence of copyright.
The case got as far as the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeal, but was settled this week with Mr Slater agreeing to donate a quarter of any royalties generated from the photos to charities aiming to protect the macaques’ natural habitat.
In one sense it is unfortunate that the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeal
did not end up providing an opinion, as it would have been interesting to hear its views!
For those with access to Westlaw International, there is a link below to the judgment of District Judge Orrick.