Canada: Monkey Sues Human Over ‘Selfies' Taken In 2011

Last Updated: August 7 2017
Article by Nicolas Di Nardo

It's 2017 and apparently, every year that goes by brings something new that we never thought we'd ever see possible. Now, animals seem to be able to sue humans over anything they please.

Back in 2011, a British photographer by the name of David Slater gave a crested black macaque his camera, who ended up taking two 'selfies'. This occurred after Slater spent many long periods of time with the monkey, teaching it to become interested in his equipment.

Unfortunately at the time, Slater probably didn't think he'd be on the receiving end of a lawsuit from the monkey. The monkey and photographs in question were taken in 2011 as part of his project to raise awareness about the species, which is endangered. His intentions were always good, Slater says, he has been a conservation photographer for a very long time.

These photos went viral, and quickly ruined Slater's life. He was no longer able to sell them to raise money for the conservation project, and couldn't pay himself. The photos became to accessible to the public, so purchasing the photos from him were now out of the question. Wikipedia also created a page dedicated to the photographs, which made them even easier to find.

Before all of this, he was making and raising money for the project, which he estimates he made roughly £2,000 in the first year, but after the photographs went on Wikipedia, he estimates that he lost at least £10,000, due to the lack of interest to purchase the photos from him.

Now jumping to 2012, Slater was involved in the first legal dispute of many over the photos. In this dispute, Slater requested that Wikimedia Commons pay for his work or remove them, because they had uploaded them to the web as royalty free images. Wiki refused to do so, and claimed that Slater owned no copyright because the monkey was the one who pressed the shutter button, taking the photos himself. In 2014, Slater mentioned in an interview that he lost a huge amount of revenue as a result of this dispute.

Wikipedia was Slater's first hurdle, which he failed to overcome. Now, fast-forwarding to 2015, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) decided to get a piece of the action. PETA is an animal rights organization which consists of 6.5 million members and supporters. Their motto is "Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment or abuse in any other way."

PETA challenged Slater by claiming that the proceeds from the photographs should go to the monkey, but shortly after in 2016, the court disagreed. The court ruled that copyright protection could not be applied to the animal. Coming to that type of verdict meant that there was still legally no copyright licence on the photos, and that they remain in the public domain.

Feeling the pain of defeat, PETA fought back. This time, they took to the Copyright Act (U.S.). Last year they decided to fight the ruling in court, naming the monkey as the author of the works "in ever practical (and definitional) sense." PETA appealed to the ninth circuit court of appeals, which heard the arguments last week.

Using the Copyright Act, PETA stated in the appeal papers, that:

"Had the monkey selfies been made by a human using Slater's unattended camera, that human would undisputedly be declared the author and copyright owner of the photographs... Nothing in the Copyright Act limits its application to human authors... protection under the Copyright Act does not depend on the humanity of the author, but on the originality of the work itself."

The court must now decide:

  • Whether PETA has a close enough relationship with Naruto to represent him
  • What the value would be to provide a community of macaques with written notices of copyright
  • Whether Naruto is actually losing out by not being the formal copyright holder

One question has been brought up during the development of this case:

Has PETA identified the correct monkey?

Slater claims that the one in the photo is female and is not the same age as the one PETA is representing. The monkey PETA is representing is a six year old macaque.

Slater believes strongly that it does matter that the right monkey is suing him, and PETA seems to not have the correct one, according to Slater.

He's been suffering after the constant battles in court. He couldn't even attend the latest court date because he couldn't afford a plane ticket to the U.S. In addition, he still owes his lawyers, has no real income, can't afford new camera equipment, and as a result may quit photography all together. He would be happy being a dog walker or a tennis coach.

It is shocking how a monkey has the capability in today's world to ruin a career and put them on the verge of bankruptcy.

Slater's photos have always been for the right reasons, his intentions were good, he supports the raising of awareness for endangered species, but it seems an organization that should be on his side has overlooked Slater's intention through the distribution and sale of these photographs, and might be taking this a little too far.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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