No Copyright for Monkeys

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.

As if the idea of a monkey (a “crested macaque,” to be precise) taking a perfect selfie wasn’t strange enough, the lawsuit that followed is.

In 2011, David Slater, a British nature photographer, was taking pictures of the wildlife on the Tangkoko reserve in Indonesia when a monkey by the name of Naruto managed to get Slater’s camera away from him. Naruto took several pictures before Slater managed to get his camera back and one of those pictures turned out to be a perfect selfie – Naruto even smiled and looked right at the camera as he snapped a picture of himself.

Later on, Slater published a book that included some of the pictures Naruto had taken, which had been dubbed “monkey selfies.” That’s when the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) got involved.

PETA sued Slater on behalf of Naruto, trying to claim that, because Naruto had taken the picture, Naruto owned the copyright to that photo. By publishing those photos, Slater had allegedly violated Naruto’s copyright, according to PETA’s lawsuit.

A federal district judge in San Francisco dismissed PETA’s claims in early 2016, saying that, since Naruto was not a person, he could neither own a copyright.

PETA appealed that decision, but then reached a settlement agreement with Slater in September of 2017, in which Slater agreed to donate 25% of all future revenue generated by Naruto’s pictures to the Tangkoko reservation.

Despite the settlement agreement, after which PETA asked for the case to be dismissed, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals still heard arguments for the case and upheld the lower court’s ruling. But the court also maintained that Slater could not claim a copyright of the photos either since he had not taken them. As a result, under the terms of the US Copyright Office, the pictures cannot be copyrighted.

In a footnote of the court’s decision, the panel took aim at PETA and its motives. While the advocacy group claimed to be a “friend” of Naruto, it had sought a settlement agreement with Slater after conducting oral arguments in front of the appellate court’s panel of judges. The court implies that PETA did so only after realizing in oral arguments that it did not have a strong case against Slater.

Further, the court found it hard to determine exactly how Naruto benefited from this settlement agreement that was supposedly negotiated on his behalf. Since the court determined that Naruto was ineligible to claim copyright and granting him copyright had not been part of the settlement agreement, it was unclear exactly what benefit Naruto derived from the settlement. While the agreement included a provision for Slater to donate a portion of the book’s revenue to charities that work to protect Naruto’s habitat and other Indonesian crested macaques, nothing in the agreement specifies that any of the money has to go to Naruto. PETA does still have the option of appealing the decision and asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case without taking into account the settlement agreement or the previous court decisions, but such a move is unlikely, given the existence of the settlement

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