The sad case of the simian selfie
Jan. 18, 2016
by Ivan Raconteur

I feel sorry for Naruto. He took a magnificent selfie which became an Internet sensation, and although he deserves to own the copyright for his photo, we can never let him win.

The story began in 2011 on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, when Naruto, who happens to be a macaque, took a self-portrait using a camera owned by photographer David Slater.

The photo, which became known as the monkey selfie, went viral on the Internet.

As is often the case when something becomes popular, the question arose as to who owns the rights to the photo.

Wikipedia and others claim no one owns the rights to the photo, and have been using it as an image in the public domain.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), on the other hand, contend that the monkey, which they named Naruto, owns the rights. The group filed a lawsuit on his behalf last year, and offered to administer the copyright for him.

The US Copyright Office has taken the official position that “a photograph taken by a monkey” is among the things that cannot be copyrighted.

As it happens, simian selfies are not the only animal art addressed. US Copyright rules also specifically list “a mural painted by an elephant” as something that cannot be copyrighted.

Only works created by a human being can be registered for copyright.

This is sad, really, because Naruto’s selfie is quite good, and he may be more intelligent than the photographers who took some of the selfies I have seen online. He certainly looks brighter than some of them.

Slater, who owns the camera Naruto used to take his self-portrait, has been granted a British copyright for the photo, and says his copyright should be honored elsewhere. He has filed a motion asking the court to dismiss PETA’s lawsuit.

Naruto’s case does not appear to be going well.

Earlier this month, US District Judge William Orrick wrote that there is no indication the Copyright Act extends to animals.

However, Orrick noted that if Congress were to determine that copyright laws should apply to animals, the Constitution would likely allow it.

Sadly, even in the unlikely event Congress would find animals should be granted copyright protection, we could never allow this.

If we were to allow animals the same legal rights as humans, our already overburdened legal system would collapse under the weight of the added litigation.

One can only imagine the flood of lawsuits that would arise if this were to occur.

Suppose, for example, a certain group of Clydesdales were to demand compensation for the work they have done hauling beer wagons and promoting a product over the years.

What would happen if cows asked for monetary compensation for promoting dairy products?

If we consider the myriad of animals that have been used as shills to promote products and services, it is clear that if we extended the same legal rights to them as to humans, we’d be in trouble.

No doubt any additional costs would be passed on to consumers, and we don’t need that.

As one colleague pointed out, if animals started earning income for copyrighted works, promotional consideration, or modeling services, the government would surely swoop in and start taxing it, which could complicate things even further.

A whole new field of animal rights lawyers could spring up overnight. Based on the controversy generated by a single monkey selfie, this could be a lucrative niche.

There might be one bright spot in all this.

If the people who inflict widespread misery upon the masses by posting countless photos of “cute” (and not-so-cute) animals on the Internet had to start compensating the animals for using their likenesses, it would likely dramatically reduce the number of these posts, which would make the world a better place.

There’s always a silver lining if we dig deep enough.

Note: There is an ongoing debate concerning which of a group of macaques took the selfie in question (the monkeys took several photos), and there are even questions as to whether or not the subject was a male or female. We used Naruto in this piece because his currently seems to be the prevailing identity.

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