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Settlement Reached in Bananas “Selfie Monkey” Lawsuit

Prior to the settlement, the courts had been tasked with deciding whether or not U.S. copyright law applies to animals

Photographer David Slater posing with crested black macaque (David Slater/DanitaDelimont/Alamy Stock Photo)
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In 2011, British photographer David Slater was photographing crested black macaques in Indonesia when one of the monkeys looked into his camera, flashed a goofy grin and pressed the shutter button. The resulting “selfies” became the subject of an unusual (“bananas,” some might say) lawsuit that saw People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sue for the monkey’s right to own the photos. As Sudhin Thanawala of the Associated Press reports, the years-long legal battle came to an end on Monday, with Slater and PETA settling out of court. 

Under the terms of the settlement, Slater will donate 25 percent of any future revenue from the contentious images to Indonesian charities that protect crested black macaques, a critically endangered species. The so-called “selfie monkey” will not have rights to the photographs, but Slater has asked a San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to toss out a lower-court ruling that said animals are not able to own a copyright.

"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," the parties said in a joint statement.

The selfie saga began when Slater visited the Tangkoko-Batuangus Nature Reserve in Indonesia, in the hopes of garnering “a bit more publicity” for the crested black macaque, the photographer writes on his blog. He had been following the macaques for three days when he set up his camera on a tripod and let the animals, well, monkey around with it.

“I put my camera on a tripod with a very-wide-angle lens, settings configured such as predictive autofocus, motorwind, even a flashgun, to give me a chance of a facial close-up if they were to approach again for a play,” Slater writes. “I duly moved away and bingo, they moved in, fingering the toy, pressing the buttons and fingering the lens. I was then to witness one of the funniest things ever as they grinned, grimaced and bared teeth at themselves in the reflection of the large glassy lens. … They played with the camera until, of course, some images were inevitably taken!” 

Slater published the selfies in his 2014 book, Wildlife Personalities. PETA subsequently sued for damages, claiming that Slater had infringed on the copyright of a male macaque named Naruto.

“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 during a 2015 interview with Justin Wm. Moyer of the Washington Post. “If a human being had made this or similar selfie photographs, they would be the copyright owner of the photograph.”

Slater argued that he should own commercial rights to the photograph because he set up the camera and encouraged the monkeys to use it. “It wasn’t serendipitous monkey behavior,” the photographer told Julie Carrie Wong of the Guardian. “It required a lot of knowledge on my behalf, a lot of perseverance, sweat and anguish, and all that stuff.”

He also contested PETA’s identification of the monkey, telling Wong that he knows “for a fact” the macaque was a female. “I’m bewildered at the American court system,” Slater said. “Surely it matters that the right monkey is suing me.”

In January of 2016, a federal judge sided with Slater, ruling that copyright law does not apply to animals. PETA appealed the decision and the case was moved to a 9th Circuit Court, which had been considering the appeal prior to the settlement.

The legal battle is now over, but Slater has emerged somewhat worse for wear; in July, he told Camilla Turner of the Telegraph that the lawsuit has drained his finances.

Perhaps it’s for the best that “selfie rat,” yet another famous animal photographer, turned out to be a hoax.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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