Monkey selfie is a puzzle for copyright experts

16th October 2015

PETA's (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) announcement that they are to sue British photographer, David Slater over a so called 'monkey selfie', could pave the way for a huge change in copyright law according to one leading expert.

The image in question was taken after Mr Slater, who had spent three days taking photographs of a group of macaque monkeys on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, allowed the monkeys to freely use the camera which he had set up on a tripod. The photograph shows Naruto the macaque peering into the lens in a classic 'selfie' pose.

"The issue arose after Mr Slater published the photograph in his book Wildlife Personalities," explains David Bayliss, an expert on copyright law at Midlands solicitors, Higgs & Sons.

"Wikipedia subsequently published the image on its website and later refused to take it down, arguing that neither Mr Slater nor Naruto owned the copyright and it was therefore in the public domain."

PETA have since filed a lawsuit on behalf of Naruto, arguing that he should receive damages for copyright infringement. This rather unique situation raises a number of issues in copyright law according to David Bayliss.

"In the UK, the 'author' of the work is defined as the person who creates it. Therefore, in English copyright law, as the author must be a person, Naruto cannot be the author and therefore cannot own the copyright.

"The problem is that as no actual 'person' took the photograph. So does that mean there is no author?"

"One could argue that the person who owns the equipment used to take the photograph is the owner of the copyright - in this case Mr Slater. But even this approach is  problematic if, for example a photographer has hired equipment. For computer-generated work the issue is further complicated as the author is the person who makes the arrangements necessary for the creation of the work. As Mr Slater set up the camera and tripod and set the brightness and contrast levels on his camera, this would seem to point to him as the author of the work."

"The issues over Naruto's 'selfie' could well have implications beyond copyright as it could be the first occasion where an animal can be seen to own property, rather than be property itself. 

"But with regard to copyright matters, the PETA claim is yet another example of a situation that has not been anticipated by those who originally drafted the copyright laws which highlights the need for seeking clear guidance from experts in this complex area of law," concludes David Bayliss.

Higgs & Sons' commercial team regularly advises on intellectual property issues including copyright, trademarks and patents. If you need any advice on intellectual property issues please contact either David Bayliss on 01384 327283 or at David.Bayliss@higgsandsons.co.uk or Jane Rudge on 01384 327127 or at Jane.Rudge@higgsandsons.co.uk.


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