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Photog says he owns copyright to monkey selfies

- August 7th, 2014

Who knew a selfie could cause so much trouble?

Wikimedia, the nonprofit group behind Wikipedia, claims that selfies taken by a monkey is in the public domain. The photographer, who owns the camera equipment thinks otherwise, and is suing over it.

As the U.K.’s Telegraph explains, in 2011 British Nature photographer David Slater was in Indonesia and taking photos of crested a black macaque. He had left his camera unattended, when one of the monkeys came over to check out ended out taking a bunch of selfies.

Monkey selfie

Screenshot of a Wikipedia page for one of the monkey selfie photos. (SCREENSHOT)

Slater sifted through the series of images and added a couple to his portfolio.

Since then, the monkey selfies have been added to the Wikimedia Commons – a database of royalty-free images. And, among other places, it appears on the Wikipedia entry for the Celebes crested macaque (or crested black macaque).

Slater complains he has lost money as publications are using the photos and not paying him royalties.

Slater has complained to Wikimedia that he owns the copyright and the photos have been taken down in the past but they get reuploaded.

“Some of their editors think it should be put back up,” Slater told the Telegraph. “I’ve told them it’s not public domain, they’ve got no right to say that its public domain. A monkey pressed the button, but I did all the setting up.”

But in Wikimedia’s first transparency report shows the non-profit does not agree with Slater’s copyright claim and has officially denied the takedown request.

Screenshot of a Wikipedia page for one of the monkey selfie photos. (SCREENSHOT)

Screenshot of a Wikipedia page for another one of the monkey selfie photos. (SCREENSHOT)

The argument is that since the monkey actually took the photos, there is no copyright. But under U.S. copyright law, where Wikimedia is based, a non-human cannot legally own copyright.

As the Wikipedia page for the smiling selfie indicates:

“This file is in the public domain, because as the work of a non-human animal, it has no human author in whom copyright is vested.”

And Wikimedia added in its report that:

“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.”

So Slater is now going to court to settle it.

But his participation in creation of the photo seems a little dubious when you his comments in the 2011 Telegraph article about the photoshoot:

“One of them must have accidentally knocked the camera and set it off because the sound caused a bit of a frenzy.

“At first there was a lot of grimacing with their teeth showing because it was probably the first time they had ever seen a reflection.

“They were quite mischievous jumping all over my equipment, and it looked like they were already posing for the camera when one hit the button.

“The sound got his attention and he kept pressing it. At first it scared the rest of them away but they soon came back – it was amazing to watch.

“He must have taken hundreds of pictures by the time I got my camera back, but not very many were in focus. He obviously hadn’t worked that out yet.

“I wish I could have stayed longer as he probably would have taken a full family album.”

He did set up the camera and certainly had to do a lot of curating of photos. He does make it sound like a very hands-off endeavour.

I agree with Wikimedia that the photos are in the public domain. Sure, Slater set up the camera and perhaps was even planning on doing time-lapse photography which he could claim copyright to even if he was there at the time.

But since the monkey became aware of the camera, essentially started mugging and became the photographer by choosing when the photo was taken, even though it wouldn’t have understood what it was doing, Slater can’t really claim the copyright because he no longer had control of the situation.

But people in the office disagree with me. They think the copyright clearly lies with the photographer as he created the conditions for the photos to be taken.

What do you think?

Does Slater own the copyright to the photos?

Should the monkey own the copyright even though it isn’t human?

Or is Wikimedia right to stay it is in the public domain?

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2 comments

  1. T | August 7, 2014 at 9:56 pm

    Obviously the rights belong to the one who took it, the MONKEY! Oh wait, monkeys don’t have rights. I guess its the PUBLICS photos. I own a car, if ken block drove it through a track and recorded it I wouldn’t take credit for his work just because it’s my car. . .

  2. Greg Marks | August 8, 2014 at 8:33 am

    Yes, Slater did set up the camera, making the photos possible, he owned the media used, and he curated the results, all of which might allow him to claim copyright, but the photos were technically taken by the macaque. If this were a case of a person taking a photo with a borrowed camera, I suspect copyright would fall to the borrower, not the lender. The difference here is that the simian-in-question probably had no idea it was creating visual art; according to the account above, it likely pressed the button to create a sound.

    At the very least, I think Slater should be given credit for the images. As to whether royalties are payable, since the monkey pressed the button and thus took the photo, and since these creatures are critically endangered, if it is decided that the pictures are not public domain, perhaps royalties could be shared between Slater and a suitable conservation charity. If Slater were to propose such a solution, it might even improve his professional image.

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