If a monkey steals a person's camera and takes a selfie in the forest, who owns the copyright to that selfie? Such is the question that British photographer David Slater wants the courts to answer after Wikimedia Commons refused to take down a copy of the image from its website.
Slater is in a heated dispute with Wikimedia and its parent company Wikimedia Foundation, which insists that a photograph taken by a non-human entity, in this case, the female macaque monkey that pressed the shutter button, is not owned by anybody and belongs to the public domain. Slater, however, says the photo's copyright belongs to him, as he shouldered the expenses of travelling to Indonesia and setting up the equipment, not to mention the costs of purchasing his camera and other equipment.
At the center of the dispute is a stunning image of a grinning crested black macaque that looks like it came out of an animated movie. In 2011, Slater flew to Indonesia from Gloucestershire and spent three days with a tour guide and his equipment following macaque monkeys around. One day, he set up his tripod and walked away for a few moments only to come back and see a group of macaques messing around with the camera.
Most of the shots were blurry, rendering them useless, but a few arresting images have made the cut and became viral after Slater's photographs were featured in various publications. The photo was uploaded as a royalty-free image on Wikimedia's website, but was taken down by editors when Slater complained. However, other editors seem to have a different opinion on whether the image belongs to the public domain or is owned by Slater.
"Some of their editors think it should be put back up," says Slater. "I've told them it's not public domain, they've got no right to say that it's public domain. A monkey pressed the button, but I did all the setting up."
The photographer also complained that, although the image has gone viral and would have earned him a substantial amount, he has not made much from the image, which is now back again on Wikimedia's website.
"That trip cost me about £2,000 for that monkey shot," he says. "Not to mention the £5,000 of equipment I carried, the insurance, the computer stuff I used to process the images. Photography is an expensive profession that's being encroached upon. They're taking our livelihoods away."
Wikimedia, however, is not giving up the battle anytime soon. In its transparency report that provides information on all takedown requests, Wikimedia says "it's clear the monkey was the photographer" and that "non-human authors" have no copyright claims to a body of work.
"To claim copyright, the photographer would have to make substantial contributions to the final image, and even then, they'd only have to copyright for those alterations, not the underlying image," says Wikimedia spokesperson Katherine Maher.
Intellectual property expert Charles Swan of London-based law firm Swan Turton thinks Slater's claim is "ridiculous," saying that Slater has to provide evidence that the photograph was his own intellectual creation for him to be able to claim copyright.
"The fact that [David Slater] owns the camera has nothing to do with it," Swan says. "To have copyright, you've got to create something; it has to be an expression of your personality. That's not. Obviously, there is no copyright in that picture."
For its part, the female macaque monkey pictured in the photograph seemingly couldn't care less about who owns copyright to her selfie.