So Easy a Monkey Can Do It

To the delight of copyright lawyers everywhere, yesterday the infamous Monkey Selfie debate of 2011 revived itself in the wake of a transparency report issued by Wikimedia revealing that the organization refused a request by photographer David Slater to remove the photo from Wikimedia Commons. Slater traveled to Indonesia in 2011 to photograph macaque monkeys. By Slater’s own account, a monkey grabbed one of his cameras and began snapping photos, including this one . Slater apparently licensed the image for distribution, and later discovered that it had been uploaded to the Wikimedia Commons database. He demanded that Wikimedia remove the image, and the organization refused on the ground that Slater did not create the image himself and therefore does not own copyright in it. Slater’s demand, and Wikimedia’s refusal, came to light when the organization issued its transparency report. Copyright Twitter feeds everywhere immediately lit up like a Christmas tree.

Under U.S. copyright law, the author of a work is the one who created it. In wonky copyright terms, it is the person who fixed an original expression in a tangible medium. Here, Slater has publicly admitted that he did not create the photograph; the monkey. The United States Copyright Office takes the position that only human beings can be “authors.” Animals need not apply. Accordingly, this gives rise to the somewhat unusual situation where there appears to be no author as a matter of law, and thus no copyright ownership.

Of course, U.S. copyright law generally does not apply extraterritorially, and the image in question was created in Indonesia. Although both countries are signatories to the Berne Convention, which requires member nations to give each others’ nationals equal treatment under copyright law, the question of who owns the copyright in the image in the first instance may be governed by Indonesian law.

Slater has reportedly consulted with a U.S. attorney, and is supposedly considering pursuing an infringement action.

Leave a Reply

You have to agree to the comment policy.