It’s the 21st century, and monkeys take selfies. But do they own the copyrights to those images? People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) says yes.
On Monday, the animal rights organization filed a chuckle-inspiring lawsuit in a Northern California district court on behalf of Naruto, a six-year-old crested macaque from Indonesia who has a knack for selfies. According to Courthouse News Service, PETA wants the judge to give the primate copyrights to a series of silly self-portraits it snapped in 2011 with a camera belonging to wildlife photographer David John Slater.
“Naruto has the right to own and benefit from the copyright in the Monkey Selfies in the same manner and to the same extent as any other author,” the lawsuit reads. “Had the Monkey Selfies been made by a human using Slater’s unattended camera, that human would be declared the photographs’ author and copyright owner.”
PETA accuses Slater of falsely claiming ownership of Naruto’s selfies, which he published last year in his book Wildlife Personalities. It’s suing the photographer, his company Wildlife Personalities, and publishing house Blurb for damages. It’s also asking that the court immediately stop all sales and licensing of Naruto’s selfies and let PETA manage the monkey’s copyright, with sales of the images going to benefit the ape and his species, macaca nigra.
If the case sounds familiar, it’s because last year Slater was himself involved in a copyright spat with Wikimedia, which was distributing the monkey’s selfies on its Public Domain Commons. At the time, Slater claimed he owned the copyright because he set up the camera for the monkey to use, which is basically, you know, just like snapping the shutter himself. Wikimedia refused to take the pictures down, explaining that no one owned the copyright because the image was taken by a non-human being.
Copyright is, after all, a human construction. The Copyright Office reiterated this fact — and perhaps hoped to settle the hullabaloo — when it published its Compendium of US Copyright Office Practices last December. “The office will not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants,” it wrote, offering the example of “a photograph taken by a monkey.” Monkeys can’t claim copyrights because they don’t seem to know what they are. As TechDirt, points out, Naruto never did so, and the three-year statute of limitations on his selfies has run out.
But wait. Just because Naruto wasn’t savvy enough to claim his copyright doesn’t mean the court shouldn’t award it to him, right? Wouldn’t giving a monkey a copyright be a win for animal rights? Only if you assume, as PETA does, that monkeys want to be just like humans, what with our splendid ideas about money and ownership and all.
PETA’s lawsuit may be amusing, but it’s also an exploitative publicity stunt that can only do more damage to animal rights than good by making the subject seem ridiculous. Hopefully the judge will toss out their suit. By leaving the images in the public domain, as Wikimedia advocates, Naruto’s selfies would be available to individuals and organizations who want to raise awareness about endangered species like Naruto’s. Not just to PETA.