Back in 2011, nature photographer David Slater set his camera up so that the curious monkeys he was observing in Sulawesi, Indonesia, would be able to snap their own photos. This led to the infamous monkey selfie taken by one of the crested black macaques named Naruto, which shows him smiling right into the camera.
The monkey selfie then began to be shared everywhere, with Wikipedia distributing the photo in its library of images without any royalty fees. The assumption was that animals don't have ownership rights.
But now the animal rights nonprofit organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is arguing that the copyright should go to the animal, and has filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court in San Francisco against Slater and his company Wildlife Personalities Ltd.
Back when all this monkey business was making headlines, Wikimedia (which hosts Wikipedia) refused to take down the photo, which it said was in the public domain, after Slater's request. Slater believes he deserves the copyright and claimed copyright infringement.
Then the United States Copyright Office updated its creative ownership rules, siding with Wikipedia under the pretense that it will only recognize works created by human beings, banning copyrights on those made by "nature, animals or plants" as well as "divine or supernatural beings" in case this were ever to come up.
The U.S. Copyright Office went so far as to add "a photograph taken by a monkey" as an example of the types of works for which it is prohibited to obtain a copyright.
However, the new updated copyright rules are still under review and are expected go into effect in December. The practices aren't law, but do inform future legislation and provide guidelines for how the office makes decisions.
And now PETA has entered the ring, attempting to fight for the monkey's ownership rights under the premise that the current U.S. copyright law doesn't prohibit an animal from owning a copyright.
The lawsuit reads:
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. 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. While the claim of authorship by species other than homo sapiens may be novel, "authorship" under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq., is sufficiently broad so as to permit the protections of the law to extend to any original work, including those created by Naruto. Naruto should be afforded the protection of a claim of ownership, and the right to recover damages and other relief for copyright infringement, as asserted on his behalf by the Next Friends.
In the lawsuit PETA is also asking the federal court award the copyright to the money, although the statute of limitations on copyright law is three years and the selfie was taken more than four years ago. For this fact alone, it's likely the lawsuit will be thrown out and this is all just one publicity stunt for PETA.
Still, PETA appears to be pursuing this seriously, writing that if the lawsuit succeeds it has helped change history by making it the first time an animal is named the owner of property and is not just a piece of property themselves. "It will also be the first time that a right is extended to a nonhuman animal beyond just the mere basic necessities of food, shelter, water, and veterinary care. In our view, it is high time," PETA says.
PETA is even asking to administer the proceeds the monkey selfie could potentially get to benefit Naruto and his community, saying it will not take any compensation.