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Monkey wants copyright and cash from ‘monkey selfies,’ PETA lawsuit says

“Monkey selfie” as seen in court documents.
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Order in the court — the monkey wants to speak. And, in a novel federal lawsuit filed by the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), it appears he wants his copyright back.

It was just another day on the Tangkoko Batuangus Nature Reserve on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia. It was 2011 — a world away, the planet was roiled by the Arab Spring and the death of Osama bin Laden. But in Tangkoko, rare species, including the crested black macaque, roamed free, blissfully unaware of the existential burdens their homo sapiens brethren bear.

Then, out of nowhere, unfolded a scenario possibly unique in the long history of human-primate relations — and certainly unique in the annals of copyright law. In a scene that recalled the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001,” a number of macaques, including one known as Naruto, got very interested in a visitor’s camera.

“I walked with them for about three days in a row,” photographer David Slater said at the time. “They befriended us and showed absolutely no aggression — they were just interested in the things I was carrying.”

When Slater left the camera unattended on a tripod, Naruto and friends snapped what came to be known as “monkey selfies.” The selfies were a sensation, taking the Internet by storm, and Slater later included them in a book called “Wildlife Personalities.”

“A Sulawesi crested black macaque pulls one of several funny faces during its own photo shoot, seemingly aware of its own reflection in the lens,” Slater wrote. And: “My experience of these monkeys suggested that they were not just highly intelligent but were also aware of themselves.” And: “The shutter was pressed by the monkey.”

Location of Indonesia’s Tangkoko Reserve.

Now, Slater may come to rue these words. They have been quoted in PETA’s lawsuit — which alleges Slater has infringed on Naruto’s copyright. Heck: The monkey is the suit is named plaintiff.

“Naruto has the right to own and benefit from the copyright in the Monkey Selfies in the same manner and to the same extent as any other author,” the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Northern California, read. “… While the claim of authorship by species other than homo sapiens may be novel, ‘authorship’ under the Copyright Act … is sufficiently broad so as to permit the protections of the law to extend to any original work, including those created by Naruto.”

The monkey wants damages.

“All proceeds from the sale, licensing, and other commercial uses of the Monkey Selfies … [should] be used solely for the benefit of Naruto, his family and his community, including the preservation of their habitat,” the suit read.

PETA filed the suit under the legal designation “next friend,” used by those filing for those who cannot file themselves. It is perfectly reasonable, it says, to seek copyright on a monkey’s behalf.

“The U.S. copyright law does not make any distinction as to who can be the author of a copyrightable work based upon the species,” Jeffrey Kerr, general counsel to PETA, said in a telephone interview with The Washington Post. “If a human being had made this or similar selfie photographs, they would be the copyright owner of the photograph. Naruto no different since he is a macaque.”

Kerr pointed that the macaque has fallen on hard times. Their numbers have diminished by 90 percent in last 25 years. They are killed for bushmeat. And, in these popular photographs, they have the means to raise money that can be used for their protection. So what if they aren’t people?

“These macaque are so intelligent,” Kerr said. “They recognize themselves in a mirror. They use their hands. They are bright, observant and aware. They are primates just like us. It’s only conceit that keeps us from recognizing that they aren’t ‘incomplete humans.’ They are whole beings of another nation.”

Slater was interviewed by The Post last year after he asked Wikimedia, Wikipedia’s parent organization, to take down the image.

[If a monkey takes a selfie in the forest, who owns the copyright? No one, says Wikimedia.]

“This is ruining my business,” Slater said. “If it was a normal photograph and I had claimed I had taken it, I would potentially be a lot richer than I am.”

Wikimedia took a slightly different position from PETA. It said Naruto couldn’t own the copyright — so no one did.

“What we found is that U.S. copyright law says that works that originate from a non-human source can’t claim copyright,” Wikimedia Foundation’s Chief Communications Officer Katherine Maher said. “… If the photographer doesn’t have copyright and the monkey doesn’t have copyright then there’s no one to bestow the copyright upon.” (The image remains on Wikipedia.)

In an e-mail to the Post early Wednesday, Slater took aim at PETA and Wikimedia.

“PETA are deluded in this stunt,” he wrote. “The images are my copyright and are registered at the US Copyright Office — yes, that’s right!  The [office] has never decided my case, but have probably been the recipient of Wikipedia cash to get involved in my dilemma — the dilemma of protecting Images in the internet age and the age of Wikipedia drip-feeding the world it’s consensus knowledge.”

Slater also claimed a larger role in the photo shoot.

“I authored the set-up you see,” he wrote. “The story has never changed and is there on my website since 2011 … long before Wikipedia stole the image, believing instead some rehashed story from the Daily Mail.  Why believe a newspaper and not the photographer?  Because Wikipedia have an agenda to destroy intellectual property and provide all artistic works for free via its website.”

PETA took exception to this. Naruto, it said, was the artist here.

“The photographer’s description of what took place has evolved and changed in a very self-serving way over the last few years as the photograph has become more internationally famous,” Kerr of PETA said. “When you look at what he said in most recent book and initial descriptions, it was very clear that he had nothing to do with it. Naruto independently and autonomously picked up and made a series of photos borne out during the court case.”

Naruto was unavailable for comment.

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