Monkeying With Copyrights

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

Do you remember the “Monkey Selfie”? Back in 2011, a wild crested black macaque got ahold of photographer David Slater’s camera, and snapped this image (among many others which were less in-focus and less delightful):

The Monkey Selfie in question.
Looking good.

Recently, Slater has objected to the image appearing on Wikipedia, as he hopes to collect royalties for licensing the use of the image. However, Wikimedia (the American organization behind Wikipedia) believes the item is in the public domain. Because it is the photographer who generally owns copyrights on an image, and because a macaque took the photo, stories around the world are reporting this as “monkey owns copyright“. Slater echoes this:

“If the monkey took it, it owns copyright, not me, that’s their basic argument. What they don’t realise is that it needs a court to decide that,” he said.

However, this appears to be a misrepresentation of Wikimedia’s position. They are not claiming that the monkey owns the copyright. If they were, they would then need the monkey’s permission to use it, and good luck getting that.1 No, a closer look reveals the following permission statement on the page for the image:

Wikipedia's Copyright Statement: This file is in the public domain, because as the work of a non-human animal, it has no human author in whom copyright is vested.

In short, animals can’t own copyrights (at least not in the US), and since an animal created this, it can’t be copyrighted. This argument is actually quite clever. If it’s legally valid, it allows Wikipedia to post the photo without permission from either Slater or the macaque.

Whether that legal interpretation is correct is something the courts may need to decide. The underlying questions here are quite interesting to consider. If a photographer sets up an elaborate system, but an animal presses the final button to capture a photo, who exactly took the picture? Ultimately, it does feel as if the photographer ought to own the rights in that case, and likely in this, but we’ll see in time how the courts rule.

Update (August 7th, 2014): Here’s a tangential story about photographers, their assistants, and shared copyrights, courtesy of Joel Irwin.

Update (August 22nd, 2014): It looks like US copyright regulators have weighed in, and the photo can’t be copyrighted.


  1. Monkeys are notoriously protective of their intellectual property. ↩︎

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