In Depth

Monkey holds copyright to famous selfie, claims Peta

Animal rights group files lawsuit on behalf of macaque Naruto, who became internet star

150923-monkey.jpg

Animal rights group Peta has launched a copyright lawsuit on behalf of a monkey, who became an internet star by taking a selfie in 2011.

The group is hoping to take financial control of the copyright of the photograph so that it can administer the funds on behalf of the six-year-old crested black macaque, Naruto. If the lawsuit in San Francisco succeeds, Peta says it would be the first time that a non-human animal is declared the owner of property.

The camera used by Naruto belonged to British nature photographer David Slater, who was travelling in Indonesia at the time. The animal reportedly pressed the shutter button several hundred times taking numerous photos including a handful of "selfies".

Slater says he "set the whole thing up" and therefore owns the rights to the photographs, which shot to prominence when they were published by newspapers, websites and magazines around the world, most of whom paid Slater to reproduce them.

However, many media and online outlets, including Wikimedia, claim that no one can own the copyright of the image, as it was ultimately taken by an animal, not a person.

Peta's lawyer Jeffrey Kerr says the US law on copyright has "no limit on species" and is clear that "it's not the person who owns the camera, it's the being who took the photograph".

In a statement, Peta said: "Our argument is simple. US copyright law doesn't prohibit an animal from owning a copyright, and since Naruto took the photo, he owns the copyright, as any human would."

What does David Slater say?

The images have been uploaded to Wikimedia several times, and each time Slater has requested that they be taken down. In the past, the images have been removed, but Wikimedia finally decided that the monkey itself owned the copyright because it was the one that pressed the shutter button.

Slater argues that even though the monkey pressed the button, he had put a lot of effort into creating the circumstances in which the photograph could be taken. "Some of [Wikimedia's] editors think it should be put back up. I've told them it's not public domain, they've got no right to say that its public domain. A monkey pressed the button, but I did all the setting up".

The Gloucestershire-based photographer says that he financed the trip and the camera equipment cost him a lot of money, so he is entitled to financial compensation when the images are used. He thinks the decision should be made by the courts not the publisher.

Three other curious copyright cases

A tattoo artist campaigned to stop the release of the film The Hangover Part II because the film prominently featured the tribal-style design he had tattooed on Mike Tyson's face. The artist, Victor Whitmill, claimed copyright ownership over the design, which was supported by the fact that Tyson had signed a document granting him all rights to the tattoo. Whitmill and Warner Bros. eventually settled out of court, Bloomberg says.

In 1951, two comics called Dennis the Menace went on sale on the very same day, 12 March. One was published in the US and the other in the UK, but both followed the adventures of a mischievous child called Dennis. The two creators ultimately agreed that the two comics has emerged simultaneously by complete chance and decided not to sue one another, Plagiarism Today notes.

Photographs of the Eiffel Tower at night cannot be reproduced without permission from the tower's operating company, Societe d'Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel. The company owns the rights to the distinctive lighting array within the tower. There is a way around the restriction, however: photographs of the Eiffel Tower alone are illegal, but "French law permits evening photos of the tower as part of the Parisian cityscape or a panoramic scene," Bloomberg notes. "And daytime photos of the 1,050-foot lattice structure carry no restrictions".

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