Earlier this week, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a federal lawsuit asking the government of the United States to grant a selfie-snapping macaque copyright to his famous photographs. The monkey, whose name is Naruto, became a viral sensation in 2011 after wildlife photographer David Slater published a photo the monkey had snapped of himself after stealing Slater’s camera.
Now, PETA wants to make sure the monkey gets a cut of the photo’s profits.
This isn’t the first time ownership of the photo has been questioned. Last year, Slater went up against Wikimedia, the organization that operates Wikipedia, for refusing to heed his requests for the website to remove copies of Naruto’s selfies. Slater argued that he owns the copyright to the photos and was losing significant amounts of money in royalties, as the organization freely distributes the photograph through Wikimedia Commons. However, Wikimedia stated that because the photo was taken by an animal it belongs in the public domain, David Kravets wrote for Ars Technica at the time.
"To claim copyright, the photographer would have had to make substantial contributions to the final image, and even then, they'd only have copyright for those alterations, not the underlying image. This means that there was no one on whom to bestow copyright, so the image falls into the public domain,” Wikimedia wrote in a statement.
Ultimately, officials at the U.S. Copyright Office agreed with Wikimedia, declaring the photo to be in the public domain. But now, PETA is challenging that ruling by arguing that the monkey himself should own copyright for the photograph.
“The [U.S. Copyright Act] grants copyright to authors of original works, with no limit on species,” PETA lawyer Jeffrey Kerr tells David Crary for the Associated Press. “Copyright law is clear: It’s not the person who owns the camera, it’s the being who took the photograph.”
In the suit, PETA argues that the monkey is the rightful recipient of all royalties from the photograph’s use. Kravets also reports that the organization has requested that PETA be granted custody over the photograph, so that it may "administer and protect Naruto's rights in the Monkey Selfies on the condition that all proceeds from the sale, licensing, and other commercial uses of the Monkey Selfies, including Defendants' disgorged profits, be used solely for the benefit of Naruto, his family and his community, including the preservation of their habitat…”
While Slater told Crary via email that he was “very saddened" by the new lawsuit, ironically, he recently cast his support for animals to have property rights in a recently-published book that includes Naruto’s selfies, writing that “the recognition that animals have personality and should be granted rights to dignity and property would be a great thing.”
When it comes to exactly who owns those selfies, however, Slater may not be so enlightened: Crary reports that Slater has acquired copyright protection under British law and is still seeking to defend his copyright from publications that have printed the photos without his permission.
“The facts are that I was the intellect behind the photos, I set the whole thing up,” Slater tells Crary in an email. “A monkey only pressed a button of a camera set up on a tripod — a tripod I positioned and held throughout the shoot.”
Whether or not PETA is right in saying that Naruto should own his photograph, the organization will likely face an uphill battle to secure the monkey his copyright.