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PETA Sues Photographer on Behalf of Selfie-Taking Monkey

You know the one.

by Sarah Jeong
Sep 22 2015, 6:27pm

One of the monkey selfies taken with David Slater's camera. Photo: David Slater (or Naruto?)/Wikimedia Commons

Back in 2014, Wikimedia got into a little dispute with nature photographer David Slater over this photo of a Sulawesi crested macaque. The photo had gone viral on the internet, in no small part due to the story behind it. According to Slater, the monkey had run off with his camera and taken a "selfie."

When Wikimedia Commons made the photo available as part of its repository, Slater sent a DMCA notice. Wikimedia considered it, and then declined to take it down. Slater wasn't the author, they said. If anything, the monkey—who pointed the camera and snapped the photo—was. But monkeys can't own copyrights, so the photo is in the public domain.

The story exploded on the internet, everyone got to play internet copyright expert, and the photographer made some ominous noises about lawsuits. But he got to license the disputed photo to risk-averse news organizations, and everything settled down.

Now PETA is suing Slater on behalf of the monkey.

We have a lot of questions.

1) The monkey's name is Naruto?

2) How do they even know the monkey's name is Naruto?

3) Can monkeys even sue?

This question is supposedly answered in paragraph 17. PETA is suing on behalf of the monkey, whose "rights cannot be effectively vindicated except through an appropriate representative."

We feel like this does not adequately answer our question.

4) Seriously, it's a monkey that lives in an Indonesian rainforest. You can't let that monkey sue in a California federal district court.

5) Also, monkeys can't own copyright.

The US Copyright Office has explicitly stated that animals cannot be authors for the purposes of the Copyright Act.

The Copyright Office is an important figure in U.S. copyright law. It maintains copyright registrations (which aren't mandatory to own a copyright, but it's a nice thing to have in case you ever want to sue). It plays a big role in Congress's on-and-off interest in copyright reform. And it publishes the Copyright Compendium, a 1200-page guide to Copyright Office practices that declares, among other things, that monkeys can't have copyright.

Solid burn by the US Copyright Office.

It's a logical interpretation of existing US law.

But here's the tricky thing. The Copyright Office isn't Congress and it's not a federal court. Now that the question of monkey copyright is in front of a judge, it raises interesting administrative law questions, like deference to the Copyright Office and—

6) It's a lawsuit where the plaintiff is a monkey!!!!

Yeah, no, let's not lose sight of what's really important: this lawsuit is insane.

7) Why, PETA? Why?

In the end, what PETA is looking for is the ability to license the monkey selfies (wait, there's more than one?) and use the proceeds "solely for the benefit of Naruto, his community of crested macaques, and preservation of their habitat." What this is is a really weird way to raise money for an endangered species.

It's a noble cause, but might we suggest that there may be better ways of doing this than trying to set up a legal precedent where people have to try to get a monkey to sign a release form before they can post his selfie on the internet?