U.S. Copyright Office Denies Monkeys Rights To Their Selfies

That means no more business for this monkey.
Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, British wildlife photographer David Slater was traveling through the jungle in Indonesian when a crested black macaque grabbed his camera and started snapping selfies. Somebody posted the images in Wikipedia Commons, meaning anybody could use them for free. A legal battle ensued, with Slater claiming the images belong to him, and Wikipedia countering that the images belong to the public since they weren’t created by a human.

The U.S. Copyright Office addresses the dispute in the latest draft of its “Compendium Of U.S. Copyright Office Practices“, which was published on August 19. The previous compendium stated clearly that “Materials produced solely by nature, by plants, or by animals are not copyrightable.” The new 1,222-page report makes their stance on animal artwork abundantly more clear by referring specifically to photographs taken monkeys. “[T]he Office will refuse to register a claim if it determines that a human being did not create the work.”

Other fun and somewhat-related highlights from the new report:

  • [T]he Office cannot register a work purportedly created by divine or supernatural beings.
  • To be copyrightable, musical works, like all works of authorship, must be of human origin. A musical work created by solely by an animal would not be registrable, such as a bird song or whale song. Likewise, music generated entirely by a mechanical or an automated process is not copyrightable. For example, the automated transposition of a musical work from one key to another is not registrable. Nor could a musical composition created solely by a computer algorithm be registered.
  • To qualify as a work of authorship a choreographic work must be created by a human being and it must be intended for execution by humans. Dances performed or intended to be performed by animals, machines, or other animate or inanimate objects are not copyrightable and cannot be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.
  • To qualify as a work of authorship, a pantomime must involve “the real pantomime of real men.” Kalem, 222 U.S. at 61-62. Pantomimes performed by animals, robots, machines, or any other animate or inanimate object are not copyrightable and cannot be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Not everyone is smiling over the new rules. Circa reports that the photographer is facing some $17,000 in legal fees, and they quote Slater: “Photography is an expensive profession that’s being encroached upon. They’re taking our livelihoods away… For every 100000 images I take, one makes money that keeps me going. And that was one of those images. It was like a year of work, really.”

But since Slater is a British citizen and there are no international copyright laws, it’s not clear how the case will pan out or whether Slater will continue to press the matter. The Telegraph notes that, “In the U.K., under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988, a photographer can claim rights over an image even if he or she did not press the shutter button if the results are their “intellectual creation”… However, such a case has never been tried in court and the outcome would be uncertain.”

For now, at least, Wikipedia continues to list the photos under public domain.