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A US federal judge has (unsurprisingly) found that a Celebes crested macaque monkey cannot be the copyright owner of a series of “selfie” photographs created in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Where was the legal controversy?

Who was the photographer: Monkey v Man?

The monkey, identified as six-year-old “Naruto”, took the photographs using equipment belonging to nature photographer David Slater. The People of the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) commenced a lawsuit in San Francisco in 2015 seeking a court order to allow PETA to collect proceeds from the photos on behalf of Naruto and to be distributed for the benefit of Naruto and other macaques on the reserve in Indonesia.

The British photographer asserts that his company owns copyright in the photographs, as the photographs came about due to his engineering of the shots – Slater alleges he deliberately left his camera set up on a tripod with the remote trigger accessible to the monkeys in the likelihood of a photo being taken.

Slater registered copyright ownership in the photographs in the UK, and has argued that this ownership should be recognised worldwide.  However, despite his registration there has been debate around whether Slater should really be considered the author of the photographs.

The question of who owns copyright in a photograph goes beyond who owned the camera.  In Australia, the copyright owner will usually be the person who took the photograph.  In this situation, many argue that Slater can’t really be said to have taken the photographs of Naruto.  The photographs came about through the confluence of circumstances, some of which were conceived of by Slater, but others which were beyond his control.  However, it is reasonable to think that there could be a situation in which a person has asserted enough control and artistic endeavor in creating an image, even if some input is provided by an animal, that they will be considered to be the author and copyright owner in the resulting photograph.

So, if Slater isn’t the photographer, is Naruto the monkey the photographer?  And does she have any rights of her own?

In short, no.

US District Judge William Orrick has indicated he intends to refuse PETA’s request, saying that the US Copyright Act did not extend to the protection of the rights of animals.  Similarly in Australia, the author of a photograph must have legal personality and this does not include animals.

If neither Slater nor the monkey authored the photographs, then there is no copyright in the images and third parties can make use of the photographs without requiring any license.

Copyright law is an important and complex area of law that impacts everyday life.  There can be serious consequences for misuse of the intellectual property of others, including reproducing photographs on social networking platforms.  If in doubt, seek legal advice.

If you would like further information in relation to this matter or other legal matters please contact our office on Freecall 1800 609 945 or email us now.

*The information provided in this website serves as a general guide and does not constitute legal advice. It is based on our research and experience at the time of publication. Please consult our knowledgeable legal team for any specific inquiries or advice relevant to your circumstances, as the content may not have been updated subsequently.  

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