Do animals have the right to ownership – or at least to own their own image?
While most people contend no, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) argues otherwise in the lawsuit they filed on behalf of a monkey in federal court Tuesday.
In 2011, British nature photographer David Slater was visiting the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, home to crested macaque monkeys. When Mr. Slater began interacting with a few monkeys, a curious macaque, identified as “Naruto” by field researchers, figured out how to press the shutter on Slater’s camera and actually succeeded in taking a few selfies.
As owner of the camera, Slater assumed he was the owner of the photographs, publishing them in his book Wildlife Personalities.
The photos were also distributed online by Wikipedia who claimed that no one owns the copyright to the images because they were taken by an animal. Slater and Wikimedia were involved in a dispute that ultimately ended with the photo staying in the public domain.
But now PETA has sued Slater, and his publisher Blurb, Inc., arguing that US copyright law doesn’t prohibit an animal from owning a copyright, and that Naruto should be the rightful owner of his selfies.
In a compendium issued last year, the US Copyright Office stipulated copyrights would only be registered for works produced by human beings. But PETA lawyers argue the policy is “only an opinion,” reported The Guardian.
The US Copyright Office further specified that works produced by animals would not qualify. PETA counters that the US Copyright Act itself does not limit copyrights to humans.
“Since Naruto took the photo, he owns the copyright, as any human would,” wrote PETA in a blog post on Tuesday. “If this lawsuit succeeds, it will be the first time that a nonhuman animal is declared the owner of property, rather than being declared a piece of property himself or herself.”
The argument goes beyond just who owns the copyright, as Slater has profited off the sale of the monkey selfies, a move PETA argues qualifies as “copyright infringement.”
In their official complaint, PETA called upon the court to “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.”
If PETA wins the case, it could potentially affect other cases of animal artistry, including the right to artwork animals at the Oakland Zoo created, as reported by The Christian Science Monitor earlier this month.
If successful, the case would also mark the first time a right beyond the basic necessities of life is extended to a nonhuman.