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A selfie taken by a Macaca Nigra (image via Wikimedia)

In 2011, an Indonesian crested macaque monkey took a few grinning selfies with a camera found in his nature preserve. These “monkey selfies” would soon go viral. They would also trigger a bizarre legal battle between Wikimedia Commons, which posted the images as public domain; David Slater, the wildlife photographer who owned the camera; and animal rights group PETA. In a lawsuit, PETA argued that the monkey, not Slater or Wikimedia Commons, should own the rights to the image.

In the drawn-out case’s latest development, a California judge ruled Wednesday that the monkey, after all, does not own photo copyright to the selfies. The ruling determined that federal copyright law does not allow animals to claim copyright protection.

The case raises questions about authorship, artistry, and ownership that are intriguing when hypothetical but become absurd when argued in court. Who owns the rights to a photograph taken by an ape on an Indonesian nature preserve using a British citizen’s camera? All parties involved had very strong feelings about the question.

Slater, who in 2014 got in a spat with Wikimedia Commons for posting the images as public domain (since the monkey took them, they say no one owns them), continues to claim rights to the Monkey Selfies. He says that he “engineered” the shot by intentionally setting up the camera for the monkey to use, and that therefore he’s the rightful owner. “It was artistry and idea to leave them to play with the camera and it was all in my eyesight,” he said. “I knew the monkeys were very likely to do this.”

PETA, which filed its original lawsuit against the photographer, his company Wildlife Personalities, and publishing house Blurb for damages in 2014, originally stipulated that all proceeds from the photos be used for the benefit of the six-year-old monkey, Naruto, and his endangered crested macaque friends.

As to why US District Judge William Orrick tossed their case, Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento offered some explanation in a 2014 post on Hyperallergic as to why it’s so difficult to argue in court that an animal can create a copyrightable work:

It wouldn’t be considered an “author” under law (authorship under copyright must contain some expressive content). And even if the ape could create a copyrightable work, how would it police it or enforce restrictions on it, if any? How would it license the image? And how would we know the monkey wouldn’t want its image to be made freely available via the public domain?

True to form, though, the animal rights organization is not backing down. Orrick said he will allow PETA to file an amended lawsuit, which PETA attorney David Schwarz said he plans to do.

Naruto the monkey has not been reached for comment.

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Carey Dunne

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

9 replies on “After PETA Lawsuit, Judge Rules Monkey Doesn’t Own the Copyright to His Selfie”

  1. Good. Now PETA hasn’t gotten us into a nightmare scenario where animals are allowed to have the right to sign contracts and give legal consent.

    1. Good point Den. I photograph wildlife, do I now need a model release from the magpie I photographed yesterday or the bull elephant I did last time I was in the Kruger? Yeah RIGHT!

  2. So how do we determine who “owns” a piece of art — or any creative expression, for that matter? A monkey’s brain is probably on par with that of a six-year-old child, so is the implication here that the child is incapable of creativity?

    As for the photographer claiing he created it… bullcrap. I can put a sketch pad and some pencils in a classroom, but I dont own the images any kid might draw as a result.

    Fascinating that we just do not want to admit that animals are indeed capable of creativity and expression.

  3. This is extremely shortsighted and petty from PETA. Whilst they may have thought they could collect some money to help these animals, they’re ignoring the fact that wildlife photographers do a great deal to promote the beauty of fragility of nature and their work is a massively important part of wildlife protection. To undermine photographers businesses shows they have no understanding of this.

    1. Its not even that they don’t understand. It is that they don’t care. They ONLY do what they do to get more press for PETA. They are the definition of navel gazing “awareness raising”.

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