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Photographer Impoverished by Copyright Lawsuit Filed on Behalf of Monkeys

Posted by Rebecca Blake on July 25, 2017

Wildlife Personalities book by David SlaterTwo years ago, we reported on the copyright issues raised by the monkey selfie. While visiting Indonesia, UK wildlife photographer David Slater spent several days accustoming a group of crested black macaques to his presence, encouraging them to approach a camera he had preset to snap an in-focus photo. The resulting monkey selfies were an Internet hit, and Slater licensed the images through his agent, Caters News Agency. Slater quickly discovered that the images had been published in Wikimedia’s “free media repository.” Attempts by Slater to have the images removed were dismissed by Wikimedia, who took the position that since the images were not physically taken by Slater, he could not claim copyright ownership.

If the story ended there, Slater would have only experienced a loss in potential licensing revenue – in August 2014, Slater estimated to BBC News that he lost up to 10,000 £ (about $16,800 at that time) in income once the photos appeared on Wikimedia. Some of that income he may have been able to recoup through Wildlife Personalities, a book he self-published through Blurb. However, in 2015 PETA sued Slater on behalf of one of the macaques. The lawsuit claims that Slater and Blurb violated the monkey’s copyright when the selfie was included in his book, and proceeds from the selfies should benefit the monkeys. The Guardian reports that the mounting legal fees have bankrupted the photographer.

PETA’s lawsuit seems to be a stretch. In 2016, a court ruled against PETA on the grounds that an animal cannot be a copyright owner. (In the third edition of its Compendium, the Copyright Office flatly cites “a photograph taken by a monkey” as an example of a work the Office will not register.) PETA appealed that decision to the ninth circuit court, which is hearing the case this summer. As reported in the Guardian, the legal arguments heard in court approached the absurd; the judges questioned what financial benefits would apply to the monkeys, and how the copyright would be passed to their heirs.  

The lawsuit has also raised concerns among some animal rights advocates. In 2015 when PETA first brought the lawsuit, the Daily Mail quoted Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor and supporter of animal rights, as saying “it trivializes the terrible problems of needless animal slaughter and avoidable animal exploitation worldwide for lawyers to focus so much energy and ingenuity on whether monkeys own the copyright in selfies taken under these contrived circumstances.” As a self-avowed animal advocate, PETA’s lawsuit was particularly galling to Slater. However, he takes comfort in the fact that the attention to the lawsuit has generated greater awareness of the plight of the macaques and their island habitat.

RIght: David Slater’s book, Wildlife Personalities, features one of the monkey selfies prominently.

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