Just another monkey-copyright story

August 6

Three years or so ago, I posted a short article about a peculiar little copyright dispute involving a picture of a macaque monkey that had allegedly been snapped by the monkey itself (using a camera that the monkey had pilfered from the tent belonging to David Slater, a noted wildlife photographer):

monkey selfie 2

I wrote then:

The photo bears a copyright notice: “Copyright Caters News Service.” Raising the odd but interesting question: who assigned the copyright to the Caters News Service? Slater? Perhaps, but that can’t be a valid assignment, for the simple reason that he doesn’t own the copyright just because his camera was used to snap the photo.

That leaves the monkey.

The question is not an entirely ridiculous one — well, OK, it is a ridiculous one, but it is at least closely related to some very difficult and interesting copyright questions concerning the requirement (if there is one) that humancreativity is a requirement for copyright to exist in a work of authorship — questions that come up in contexts ranging from the ridiculous (creations by psychics ostensibly “channeling” voices from beyond the grave, animal creations — monkey photos, elephant drawings, chimpanzee-created music) to the more sublime (the copyright status of works “authored” by computer programs or Artificial Intelligence engines).

I entitled the article tongue-in-cheekily “My career comes full circle” because, as I noted there, I suspect that I’m uniquely positioned to analyze any and all monkey-copyright issues, having spent two years in the Kenyan bush back in the 1970s studying the feeding and ranging behavior of the yellow baboon, and a decade or so writing and teaching in the field of primatology and evolutionary biology, and then the last 15 years working on questions of copyright law and other IP matters.

The issue, oddly enough, has resurfaced.  In the recently-released transparency report issued by the Wikimedia Foundation, it appears that David Slater, the owner of the ill-fated camera, has asked Wikipedia to take down the photograph from its site on the grounds that it infringes his rights in the photo.  Wikipedia apparently declined – not (as some have reported) because it has decided that the monkey owns the copyright, but because it has decided that nobody owns the copyright in the photo.

They’re on very firm footing on that one – though in our IP-engorged age, it may be hard for some people to accept the fact than anything useful/valuable/beautiful could come unencumbered by 100 years or so of copyright rights.  If the monkey took the photo — and Slater is himself the source of the story that the monkey snapped the photo using his (Slater’s) camera — nobody owns the copyright; nonhumans cannot own copyright (or, as far as I know, personal property of any kind).  Slater has no copyright claim, because the photo was not his original work – it was the monkey’s.  But monkeys can’t own copyright.  Furnishing the monkey with a camera no more gives him a copyright claim in the work than Microsoft’s furnishing me with a word processing program gives them copyright in what I write.

[Thanks to Michael Reese for passing this along to me]

David Post taught intellectual property and Internet law at Georgetown Law Center and Temple University Law School until his recent retirement. He is the author of "In Search of Jeffersons Moose: Notes on the State of Cyberspace" (Oxford, 2009), a Fellow at the Center for Democracy and Technology, and an Adjunct Scholar at the Cato Institute.
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