Are Animals Protected Under Copyright Law? Wildlife Photographer Settles ‘Monkey Selfie’ Lawsuit with PETA

Naruto, a macaque, took this self-portrait in 2011 with a camera owned by photographer David Slater. The photo has been the subject of a years-long copyright battle. David Slater via Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, a curious 6-year-old macaque named Naruto wondered upon an unattended camera owned by wildlife photographer David Slater. The photogenic primate peered into the camera lens, grinned and pressed the shutter button, snapping the infamous “monkey selfie.”

However, unbeknownst to Naruto, his monkey selfie stirred up quite the debate. It raised the complicated question: Who owns the images Naruto took, the macaque or the man?

The Macaque or the Man?

Copyright law in the United States grants ownership rights for images to the person who took it. However, PETA argued that Naruto should be the rightful owner because, after all, he was the one who physically pressed the shutter button to create the image.

Despite this, in January of 2016 Judge William H. Orrick of the United States District Court in San Francisco disagreed. Orrick ruled that animals were not included in copyright law.

“The U.S. Copyright Office, since the dispute began, has specifically listed ‘a photograph taken by a monkey’ as an example of an item that cannot be copyrighted.” Similarly, that also extends to artworks by elephants.

The Settlement:

On Monday, PETA announced a settlement with Slater, ending a years-long legal saga. According to the settlement, Slater agreed to donate 25 percent of future revenue from the photos to groups that protect crested macaques and their habitat in Indonesia.

Also, both sides asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals “to dismiss the case and throw out a lower court decision that said animals cannot own copyrights,” The Associated Press reports.

“PETA and David Slater agree that this case raises important, cutting-edge issues about expanding legal rights for nonhuman animals, a goal that they both support, and they will continue their respective work to achieve this goal,” read a joint statement on the group’s website.

So it seems like the settlement worked well for both parties. Although, I’m sure Naruto wouldn’t mind knowing he’s a celebrity now… And a pretty darn good photographer I might add.


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