When most of us take a selfie (god forbid with a selfie-stick), we send it to a friend or two with a snarky caption. Maybe we post it on Instagram with a nice filter and are pleased when we get fifteen likes (I know I am). We don’t expect our selfie to be seen around the world. And we certainly don’t expect a selfie taken by a non-human to go viral. But such was the case with the Selfie Monkey. And people immediately started asking: Who owns the copyright to his selfie? Was it Naruto, the crested black macaque who took the selfie? Or British wildlife photographer David J. Slater who left his camera unattended in an Indonesian forest?
Though the selfie originally went viral in 2011, the photo recently returned to our screens this past August when Wikimedia refused Slater’s request to remove the image from Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia claimed that the image — captured by the monkey with Slater’s camera — is part of the public domain. Slater, meanwhile, argues the photo is still his property.
On Wednesday, a San Francisco federal judge ruled that the monkey does not have ownership of his selfie. As reported by the Associated Press, U.S. District Judge William Orrick said in a tentative opinion that “while Congress and the president can extend the protection of law to animals as well as humans, there is no indication that they did so in the Copyright Act.”
“I’m not the person to weigh into this,” Orrick said, per Ars Technica. “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.”
Animal rights to copyright have been in the news for the last few years, culminating with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), filing a federal lawsuit on behalf of Naruto seeking copyright ownership of the selfie.
“While the claim of authorship by species other than homo sapiens may be novel, ‘authorship’ under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq., is sufficiently broad so as to permit the protections of the law to extend to any original work, including those created by Naruto,” PETA said in the suit.
Slater claimed to be “angry as well as sad” by PETA’s actions.
“This makes animal welfare charities look bad which saddens me, deflecting away from the animals and onto stunts like this,” he wrote on Facebook.
On Wednesday, Orrick said he would dismiss PETA’s suit in an upcoming order, calling the group’s argument a “stretch,” per Ars Technica.
PETA, meanwhile, plans to continue to fight for Naruto’s rights. PETA attorney Jeff Kerr said, “Despite this setback, legal history was made today because we argued to a federal court why Naruto should be the owner of the copyright rather than been seen as a piece of property himself. This case is also exposing the hypocrisy of those who exploit animals for their own gain.”
Kerr added, “The act grants copyright to authors of original works, with no limit on species,” said Kerr last year, per AP. “Copyright law is clear: It’s not the person who owns the camera, it’s the being who took the photograph.”
Remind me to watch my camera around my cat.
(Image via David Slater on Wikimedia Commons.)