In Brief

Court Rules in Favor of Photographer as “Monkey Selfie” Saga Ends

On Monday, the Ninth Circuit court of appeals upheld a previous decision dismissing the lawsuit brought by PETA on behalf of Naruto, a Celebes crested macaque.

Self-portrait of a female Celebes crested macaque (Macaca nigra) in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, who had picked up photographer David Slater’s camera and photographed herself with it (via Wikimedia Commons)
Self-portrait of a female Celebes crested macaque (Macaca nigra) in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, who had picked up photographer David Slater’s camera and photographed herself with it (via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been the better part of a decade since Naruto, a Celebes crested macaque living on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, snapped a photo of himself using wildlife photographer’s David Slater camera, setting in motion the so-called “Monkey Selfie” legal saga. Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit court of appeals delivered what may prove to be the final decision in that case, siding with Slater, dismissing the lawsuit brought on behalf of Naruto by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and ruling “that this monkey — and all animals, since they are not human — lacks statutory standing under the Copyright Act.”

Last year, Slater and PETA had reached an apparent settlement in the dispute, with the photographer agreeing to donate 25% of his revenue from the use and sale of the images of Naruto to charities working to protect crested macaques habitats in Indonesia. However, the Ninth Circuit denied the ensuing petition to dismiss the appeals case, setting the stage for yesterday’s ruling.

“The Copyright Act does not expressly authorize animals to file copyright infringement suits under the statute,” Judge Carlos T. Bea wrote in the three-judge panel’s opinion. “Therefore […] Naruto lacks statutory standing to sue under the Copyright Act.”

Another member of the panel, Judge N. Randy Smith, added a partially concurring opinion, arguing that the case should be dismissed because “next friend” status — the legal relationship PETA claimed to Naruto in its lawsuit on the monkey’s behalf — cannot apply to animals.

“Animal-next-friend standing is particularly susceptible to abuse,” Judge Smith wrote. “Institutional actors could simply claim some form of relationship to the animal or object to obtain standing and use it to advance their own institutional goals with no means to curtail those actions. We have no idea whether animals or objects wish to own copyrights or open bank accounts to hold their royalties from sales of pictures.” The Ninth Circuit ruling upholds the decision of a federal judge to dismiss the case in 2016, which PETA appealed.

“Today, the court reaffirmed that nonhuman animals have the constitutional right to bring a case to federal court when they’ve been wronged,” PETA’s general counsel Jeff Kerr said in a statement, “but the opinion still missed the point, which was that Naruto the macaque undeniably took the photos, and denying him the right to sue under the US Copyright Act emphasizes what PETA has argued all along — that he is discriminated against simply because he’s a nonhuman animal.”

Kerr added that, regardless of the Ninth Circuit panel’s decision, the terms of PETA’s agreement with Slater still stand: “25% percent of the gross proceeds from the photos that Naruto took will go toward supporting him and his community — representing the first time that an animal will obtain a direct financial benefit from something that he or she created.”

As Courthouse News points out, the three-judge panel’s opinion does not address some of the case’s potentially more far-reaching issues, such as whether or not a human can own copyrights of images made by animals or machines.

“I so hope that wild animals are granted more and more fundamental rights in the future — like rights to dignity, survival, homeland, and their evolutionary privileges,” Slater wrote in a statement posted on his Facebook page. “They accept us as part of their landscape, with a big SMILE. We need to accept them as part of ours don’t you think?”

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