A macaque monkey is not legally able to claim copyright on a series of self-portrait photographs according to a US court. It’s the latest ruling in a series of lawsuits about who, if anyone, should profit.
The image shown above was taken in 2011 in Indonesia during a photoshoot by professional photographer David Slater. However, as with several shots, the button was actually pressed by a monkey named Naruto.
Slater went on to license the images to a news agency and was peeved when the picture in question appeared on Wikimedia Commons. They appeared there as public domain images on the grounds that no human took the shots and thus they can’t be considered copyrighted.
According to Slater, that’s not the case because he deliberately set the camera up and left the remote trigger in a place where the monkeys were likely to press it. He argues that he played enough of a role in the creation of the images to qualify as artistically responsible for copyright purposes.
In December last year, the US Copyright Office explicitly cited the case as an example of how works created by non-humans cannot be copyrighted. That doesn’t necessarily hold true in Slater’s home country of the United Kingdom, though at the moment it doesn’t appear Slater has any ongoing legal action to establish his copyright or get compensation for lost earnings and royalties.
Now a court has ruled in a completely separate case, brought by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA.) It argued that Naruto the monkey was directly responsible for the creation of the images thanks to “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 had asked the court to assign copyright to Naruto and give it the right to act as a “next friend” in licensing the images and spend all royalties on work to benefit Naruto’s community.
The judge in the case ruled that although, in principle, US laws can give protection to animals, that only applies where Congress and the President have clearly shown an intent to do so with a particular law. He added that there’s no indication this was the case with the Copyright Act.