Does A Monkey Have Rights? Are They Protected by Copyright Laws?

A discussion over a monkey who loves the camera was in session on Wednesday in the federal appeals court in San Francisco. A panel of three judges heard two sides of an argument for whether or not an animal can hold a copyright to a ‘selfie’ photograph.


Naruto is a Celebes Crested Macaques, a species that is critically endangered. Naruto lives in Indonesia, where the British photographer, David Slater, had traveled to capture the endangered species. Slater followed a troop of Macaques for days to gain their trust so that he could take their photos. The monkeys bonded with him, grooming him and protecting him; But even with their trust, Slater still had issues taking photos of the monkey’s faces because they were too nervous to face the camera head on.

A day later, Slater set up the camera on a tri pod with a remote trigger and walked away. It was then that the pack of monkeys walked up to the camera and began smiling and making faces while holding down the remote. The monkeys were able to recognize their reflection in the lens of the camera and were able to properly pose for a slew of photographs. The photos that developed clearly are what came to be known as the ‘Monkey’s Selfie’.


Slater licensed the images to a news agency under the presumption that he held the copyright because he tailored the photo set up and owned the camera equipment. Slater’s claim was later questioned by the copyright claim, as they argued that the photographs were in the public domain because the monkey was not a legal person that could be capable of holding a copyright. Concluding, that Slater could not hold the copy right for the photos because he was not involved in its [the monkeys] creation.

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This lead to what would later be known as Naruto et al v. David Slater as the original news agency issued a request for the photo to be removed. The request was denied on the grounds of ‘fair use’. Because the United States Copy Right Laws do not consider an animal to be protected by their statue.


Slater then later sued for financial loss as the photo became available on Wikimedia Commons which is a database of free content licensed photographs. Slater states that he “made £2,000 [for that picture] in the first year after it was taken. After it went on Wikipedia all interest in buying it went. It’s hard to put a figure on it but I reckon I’ve lost £10,000 or more in income. It’s killing my business.”

His argument is that these blogs argued and acted upon their interpretation of the law instead of waiting for a court to decide upon the copyright.

The case has raised some interesting arguments, some arguing that a monkey is not protected by human laws; with one attorney asking where the possibilities end if the courts do not prevail. Stating, ‘Where does it end? If a monkey can sue for copyright infringement, what else can a monkey do?’

While others, like PETA representative, have argued that the monkeys have watched humans closely and have begun to pick up their habits, like being able to take a photo on a professional and complicated camera.

The federal judge made a comment, and ruled against PETA’s argument last year saying that Slater lacked the right to sue because there was ‘no indication that Congress intended to extend copyright protection to animals’. He also argued that the courts must look at the word ‘authorship’ in the broadest sense and that having ‘genuine care for the monkey’ isn’t enough to establish a relationship for why a monkey should be represented in court.

Yet, on Thursday the PETA attorneys came back arguing that the case comes down to one simple fact, that photographs can be copyrighted and the author is Naruto, who happens to be a monkey.

Overall, the judges did not issue a ruling on Wednesday, keeping this argument open and up for interpretation.


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