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Blog Post  Can a Monkey Own a Copyright?

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A self-portrait taken by a black macaque monkey named Naruto on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia is the focus of a federal lawsuit filed on September 21 by the animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).  Naruto took the self-portrait with the camera of David Slater, a professional wildlife photographer, who had left the camera unattended on his tripod.  The photo was later included in Slater’s book, “Wildlife Personalities”.  It was posted on the internet by Wikimedia, where it has become wildly popular.  Wikimedia refuses to take the photo down despite a request by Slater, who claims to own the copyright.  Wikimedia claims that the photo is not copyrightable, because it was taken by Naruto, not Slater, and animals cannot own copyrights, so it is legally in the public domain.

PETA claims that the conception of “authorship” in U.S. copyright law under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. 101 et seq. is broad enough to include monkeys as authors, so Naruto should have copyright.  If PETA prevails, this would set an important precedent, potentially affecting the treatment of animals as persons in many other ways.  PETA would further demand that any proceeds earned from the reproduction of this photograph should be directed toward the conservation of the endangered black macaques of Naruto’s nature preserve in Sulawesi.

What does the law actually say on this matter?  The U.S. Copyright Office’s Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, (3rd edition, 2021) in chapter 300, section 313.2, states: ” To qualify as a work of “authorship” a work must be created by a human being. …Works that do not satisfy this requirement are not copyrightable. The Office will not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants…. Examples:  A photograph taken by a monkey.”

The Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries has a web page devoted to “Law about Copyright“, including laws, regulations, and other useful resources.

Update: The lawsuit was settled in 2017.

Written By: Gary Smith

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