Copyright Law is no Monkey Business

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast which discussed a strange lawsuit. One filed by a monkey!

The gist of the case was that a photographer named David Slater was in the jungles of Indonesia when a monkey named Naruto pressed the camera button and took a selfie. But Slater had positioned the camera, experimented with various setups, configured the camera settings and mounted it on a tripod, all to lure the monkeys into pressing the camera button. Once the selfie was taken, it became popular and Slater licensed it through an agency. Slater made some money through his licensing efforts until Wikipedia decided to put up the image on its website for public use. Slater demanded that Wikipedia take down the image because he owned copyrights in it. Wikipedia argued that since the photograph was taken by the monkey, Slater did not own copyrights in the image. Unfortunately, Slater did not have money to fight Wikipedia.

Adding to that, the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Naruto the monkey against Slater alleging that the copyright was owned by Naruto because Naruto pressed the camera button. Bizarre right?! If animals could own property, physical or intellectual, they would be ruling the world!

The Copyright Office specifically states in its compendium that “the Office will not register works produced by nature, animals or plants”. So why was PETA claiming that Naruto owned copyrights? A publicity stunt perhaps?

In any event, the California court ruled that Naruto could not be the owner of the copyright because animals cannot own property. PETA appealed and the case was eventually settled with Slater agreeing to give 25% of proceeds from sales or usage of monkey selfies to charities in Indonesia that protect crested macaques.

Copyright law requires a minimum degree of creativity and originality. To me, it seems clear that Slater should own copyright in the images. After all he positioned the camera, adjusted the lighting, and set it up so the monkey could click a button. Slater’s efforts and techniques are sufficient enough to warrant copyright protection. Moreover, Slater made edits to the photos post production which are also entitled to copyright protection. But that’s a fight for another artist now.

At Nupur Shah Law, we help business owners and creative entrepreneurs with contracts and intellectual property rights. Call us at 646-820- 1366 or email us at I am happy to have a complimentary conversation with you on how to secure and/or defend your rights.

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