The United States Copyright Act was written in order to cover many situations, but a federal judge has now ruled that it was not drafted to protect the rights of animals who happen to take famous photographs. More specifically, a federal judge in California has ruled that a macaque monkey, who took an adorable, now-famous selfie, cannot legally be considered the copyright owner of such photo.
While United States District Judge William Orrick noted that the president and Congress can legally extend the protections of certain laws to animals, there is no language in or legislative history of the Copyright Act that indicates any intention to do so. The court determined that there was no apparent attempt to extend the Copyright Act to animals.
The lawsuit was initiated last year by the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA.) In the suit, PETA requested a court order allowing the animal rights group to use all proceeds generated from the photos for the benefit of the 6-year old monkey, named Naruto.
A number of photographs, including the famous selfie, were taken in 2011 when British nature photographer David Slater took a trip to Sulawesi, Indonesia. Slater intervened in the lawsuit and asked the court to dismiss PETA’s case. He argued that the British copyright for the photos were obtained by his company, Wildlife Personalities Ltd., and those copyrights should be honored worldwide.
However, the photos have since been distributed just about everywhere, including on Wikipedia’s website. Wikipedia contends that no one owns the copyright to the photographs because they were taken not by a person - but by an animal.
In response to this particular situation, the United States Copyright Office issued an update to some of its policies last year. This included adding a section stating that the office would only register copyrights for works produced by humans. It specifically stated that the works produced by any animals, including photographs taken by a monkey, would not qualify for copyright protection.