08/08/2014 10:47 BST | Updated 08/10/2014 06:59 BST

This Monkey Business Is Serious

The #MonkeySelfie has made headlines due to a stand-off between man and monkey, or rather man and WikiMedia.

The copyright of the selfie pictures is disputed, as the photographer who travelled to Indonesia argues that the pictures wouldn't exist had it not been for his equipment being set up, ready for the button on the camera to be pressed. However, WikiMedia believes the pictures that the crested black macaque took should remain in the public domain royalty-free.

Apparently, US copyright law means that "non-human authors" do not have the right to automatic copyright of any photographs that they take. In the weird world of copyright, both an underlying image and subsequent alterations resulting in a final image are needed to have copyright bestowed on a person. While the interests and actions of both parties in this matter may not be the same, this story does show that the human legal system falls short in terms of respecting non-human animals' interests.

While we have yet to see a non-human primate using Photoshop, the active involvement of the curious macaque in taking those pictures suggests the animal might have been exploring a new feature in his or her environment leading to the creation of original images.

Animal behaviour scientists have suggested that exploratory behaviour may result in uncertainty being sought and animals taking a risk in losing control. In so doing, animals are active agents in their environment, who are developing their competencies or skills. Exploration includes not only information processing for the sake of learning more about an environment but also finding and creating novel opportunities to expand the behavioural repertoire.

Rather than the old-fashioned theories explaining motivation and function of animal behaviour in simplistic 'stimulus-response' sequences, cognitive scientists and experts in assessment of subjective animal experiences suggest exploration involves a cycle of stimuli, perception, action, effect, further stimuli and actions, etc. The macaque saw or heard the camera (stimulus perception), approached it and pressed the camera button (action), which presumably made a sound (effect), which may have triggered a further response, e.g. moving away from the device or approaching it again, etc. Some level of assessment of actions and effects is likely to have informed the macaque's subsequent behaviour and decisions.

We could guess that the motivation to take pictures was somewhat similar in both photographer and macaque (curiosity). The satisfaction in fulfilling the behaviour did not meet a fundamental need, although the camera owner claims he is losing out on income so it may be possible that he is now unable to feed himself.

Most animals, including humans, seem to enjoy the active exploration of features in their surroundings. Food, access to territory, mates or other biological rewards may not always be the sole purpose of exploratory behaviour, which can be rewarding in its own right in the short-term.

Theoretically, in this case, if the macaque was to continue taking pictures longer-term, and, say, human onlookers were rewarding this behaviour with food, what was once 'exploration' could change to a way of gaining easy access to food. This is how positive reinforcement works in theory; not that this type of interference with free living animals should take place of course. Or if the behaviour was copied or learned by fellow group members we could even see potential cultural transmission developing.

Is it really necessary to recognise 'image manipulation' skills in order to protect a being's work, or could we appreciate that non-human animals too have the capacity to be active agents in their environments, who seem to enjoy trying out new things? Isn't it time we updated our legal systems to regard non-human animals as subjective beings rather than 'property' or 'means to an end' for human use?

Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose. If you are in awe of non-human animals, consider trying to live vegan for a month or longer. Check The Vegan Society for more information.