People for the Copyright on Photographs by Animals

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the animal rights organization determined to recast animals as humans, furthers the cause this week with a lawsuit claiming copyright of a photograph taken by a crested black macaque.

A press release via the PETA website gives details of the suit:

A few years ago in Indonesia, a photographer left his camera unattended. That was tempting for a curious male crested black macaque, who took the camera and began taking photographs—some of the forest floor, some of other macaques, and several of himself, one of which resulted in the now-famous “monkey selfie.”

The macaque, named Naruto, is known to field researchers in Sulawesi, who have observed and studied him for years as they work in the region. Acting as Naruto’s “next friend” (or representative), PETA has filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court in San Francisco against the owner of the camera, photographer David J. Slater and his company, Wildlife Personalities Ltd., which both claim copyright ownership of the photos that Naruto indisputably took. Also named as a defendant is the San Francisco–based publishing company Blurb, Inc., which published a collection of Slater’s photographs, including two selfies taken by Naruto. The lawsuit seeks to have Naruto declared the “author” and owner of his photograph. Our argument is simple: U.S. copyright law doesn’t prohibit an animal from owning a copyright, and since Naruto took the photo, he owns the copyright, as any human would.

For too long we have exploited nature’s obliviousness to copyright law to our own selfish ends. Thankfully, PETA is on the case.

Why is this so important, and what does it all mean? If this lawsuit succeeds, it will be the first time that a nonhuman animal is declared the owner of property (the copyright of the “monkey selfie”), rather than being declared a piece of property himself or herself. It will also be the first time that a right is extended to a nonhuman animal beyond just the mere basic necessities of food, shelter, water, and veterinary care. In our view, it is high time.

If nothing else, this suit will challenge some of our preconceptions, such as:

• Monkeys aren’t humans.
• Monkeys lack the intelligence to operate a camera.
• Monkeys lack the intelligence to know what a camera is.
• Monkeys lack the intelligence to understand the concept of copyright ownership.
• PETA is serious about the welfare of animals.

We are also asking the court to allow PETA to administer the proceeds of “monkey selfie” sales for the benefit of Naruto and his community, without compensation to PETA.

This case exemplifies what PETA has championed for 35 years: Animals deserve recognition of appropriate rights for their own sake, and not in relation to their exploitation by humans.

Having smashed the glass ceiling on this issue, PETA will divest its hard-earned money into improving the living conditions of one artful monkey and his pals. No need to call attention to the abnormally high euthanasia rate of PETA’s Virginia shelter. Or to the kidnapping and killing of family pets by PETA employees. Or to the felonious dumping of animal corpses. That might be considered unethical.

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