People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is trying to turn copyright law on its head: in this instance, with the mug of a macaque monkey named Naruto, whose selfies went viral and have been seen around the world.
PETA filed suit Tuesday, asking the courts to declare Naruto the rightsholder and hence an owner of property: a copyright.
David Slater, the British nature photographer whose camera was swiped by the ape in the Indonesian jungle, said he has been granted copyright protection in the UK for the photos. He said he was “very saddened” over PETA’s lawsuit (PDF) in the United States.
This is the second time this year animal rights groups have asked the US courts to bestow onto monkeys the legal status that humans enjoy. Last month, a New York state court ruled against two chimpanzees represented by the Nonhuman Rights Project that claimed they were being deprived of their civil liberties while being housed at a university research facility.
The copyright case comes a year after regulators from the US Copyright Office agreed with Wikipedia’s conclusion that a monkey’s selfies cannot be copyrighted. The office said works “produced by nature, animals, or plants” cannot be granted that protection.
In its lawsuit, PETA claims that the copyright office isn’t getting the law right. The US Copyright Act grants rights to authors of original works, “including those created by Naruto,” regardless of their species, according to the lawsuit.
Had the Monkey Selfies been made by a human using Slater’s unattended camera, that human would be declared the photographs’ author and copyright owner. While the claim of authorship by species other than homo sapiens may be novel, “authorship” under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq., is sufficiently broad so as to permit the protections of the law to extend to any original work, including those created by Naruto. Naruto should be afforded the protection of a claim of ownership, and the right to recover damages and other relief for copyright infringement….
The suit demands a San Francisco judge not only grant the copyright to the monkey, but wants an order permitting PETA to “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….”
Wikimedia, the US-based operation that runs Wikipedia, announced last year that the public, not Slater, maintains the rights to the selfie and the other pictures the monkey snapped. The monkey hijacked the camera during a 2011 shoot in Indonesia and took tons of pictures.
The picture, which went viral in 2011, is among thousands Wikipedia makes available for free under its Wikimedia Commons. Slater says that decision is costing him royalties.
The suit names Slater and publishing company Blurb as defendants. Slater has just published a book, “Wildlife Personalities,” that contains pictures taken by Naruto.