A Curious Case of Copyright

This is Stephanie of IMS.


The copyright of a self-portrait photo (no one calls them that; let’s just use “selfie”) probably isn’t something we think about on a daily basis. By definition, the author of a composition—that is, in the case of a selfie, the author is the subject—holds copyright to that photo. But what if you weren’t human?


Back in 2011, nature photographer David Slater was in the forests of Indonesia to take photos of Celebes crested macaques (a type of black monkey). After leaving the camera alone for the monkeys to play with, and then later checking the photos, he noticed the following:

Monkey takes selfie


A selfie!


Some years after distributing and selling the photo as a “monkey selfie”, the photos were uploaded to Wikipedia Commons as being under public domain. This means, of course, that Slater’s copyright was suddenly thrown into question. He sued for copyright, the animal rights’ organization PETA sued for copyright on behalf of the monkey, and a judge was left to make the decision.


On January 6, 2016, a U.S. federal judge ruled that the monkey (a non-human) cannot own the intellectual property to the pictures. But… that doesn’t mean that the photographer was suddenly granted copyright. The photos remain in the public domain.


The whole case might be a bit ridiculous, but it raises some interesting questions, especially regarding copyright and philosophy: If someone creates something using my materials, is it their copyright or mine? Did the monkey know what it was doing? Does it have a sense of self to create a self-portrait? Can a monkey be legally represented in court? Etc.


Regardless of the outcome, what a case!