THE BLOG

Monkey Business: Can an Animal Own the Rights to Its Own Image?

22/01/2016 12:40 GMT | Updated 22/01/2017 10:12 GMT

If an animal takes a selfie, does it own the rights? While this may sound like a modern day riddle, it is in fact a question that a Californian court had to consider after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) took issue with a Welsh photographer's picture of a monkey.

In 2011, wildlife photographer David Slater visited Indonesia to take pictures of endangered crested macaque monkeys. During the shoot, he left his camera - which he'd set up to take pictures - unattended on a tripod. Soon enough, a macaque named Naruto began monkeying around with the device - operating the camera and capturing a presumable world-first in a gallery of animal selfies.

Unsurprisingly, believing he owned copyright in the photos, Slater began publishing the pictures and using them for financial gain. However, he was later met by opposition from PETA who argued that the monkey itself owned the copyrights to the images as it, rather than Slater, had activated the camera shutter - effectively creating its own artistic work.

A key question arose from this dispute: can an animal hold the rights to any artistic works it has created in the same way that a human can?

PETA certainly seemed to think so, filing a lawsuit in September 2015 in which they argued that, as the monkey should own the copyright as the image's creator, all profits arising from the photograph should be reassigned to the animal's wellbeing.

This argument was quashed swiftly by a San Francisco court, who ruled that the monkey could not own the rights to the image, as there is no indication that the US Copyright Act extends to protect the interest of animals.

Whilst the monkey might not own its pictures (at least not in America), Slater could still lose out on profits. Many argue that, due to the complexity of the situation, neither he nor the monkey could fairly own the copyright, positioning it instead as a public domain work.

Slater, who maintains that he is the author of the photos, having 'engineered' the situation in which the selfie was taken, has found himself in a particularly grey area of law, one which he claims has cost him £10,000 in lost copyright fees due to free use of the image.

The case remains unresolved, and it looks as though Slater's humorous monkey selfies have landed him in a peculiar legal loophole, in which he is effectively engaged in a legal battle against an animal, with no clear solution in sight.

Wayne Beynon is an IP lawyer at Cardiff and London based law firm Capital Law: www.capital-law.co.uk