Selfie Alert: Ruling on Copyright Battle over Monkey Selfies

Can a monkey acquire intellectual property rights in a selfie? On Wednesday, a federal judge answered this question in the negative, ruling that there is no indication that the protection of the United States Copyright Act extends to animals. The judge went on to state, “This is an issue for Congress and the president. If they think animals should have the right of copyright they're free, I think, under the Constitution, to do that.” 

The photos were taken during a 2011 trip to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi by British photographer David Slater. Slater left his camera unattended and a macaque named Naruto began playing with the camera, snapping selfies. The photos went viral, igniting a battle for the copyright. 

According to the lawsuit brought on behalf of Naruto by the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Naruto deserves all proceeds from the photos. Among other criteria, in order to qualify for copyright protection in the United States, a piece of work must have an “author.” PETA believes that the definition of “authorship” under the Copyright Act is sufficiently broad so as to extend protections of the law to any original work, with no limit on species of the author. As such, PETA argued that rights are decided based on the being who took the photograph, not the being who owns the camera. 

In 2014, the U.S. Copyright Office issued an updated compendium of its policies; including a section regarding works that lack human authorship. Section 312.2 states that the Copyright Act protects “original works of authorship.”1 To qualify as a work of “authorship,” a work must be created by a human being. Therefore, works “produced by nature, animals, or plants,” cannot be granted copyright protection.

However, PETA argued that the copyright office policy “is only an opinion,” saying the Copyright Act itself does not contain language precluding non-humans from owning copyrights. PETA said it plans to continue fighting for Naruto’s rights.

 1 17 U.S.C. § 102(a). 


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