The Laws of Monkey Selfies

It’s been a while since my last monkey story.

This time, it’s not about research primates being abandoned in Liberia. Thankfully.

We’re gonna get into some different monkey business. I’ll be honest; I have no clue how to start this one, so let’s just jump right in.

Four years ago, a series of “monkey selfies” were taken in the Indonesian wilderness.

The camera the monkeys used was that of nature photographer David Slater.


Is this or is this not the cutest/coolest thing you’ve ever seen?

The future is now, ladies and gentlemen.

Unfortunately, poor Mr. Slater made some enemies from his little caper. According to the Washington Post, PETA is now suing (the thing they do best) on behalf of a macaque named Naruto for copyright on the photographs, seeking “all proceeds from the sale, licensing, and other commercial uses of the Monkey Selfies” to fund conservation efforts.


So the essential question here is…

If a monkey takes a selfie in the forest, and no one is around to be annoying about it, who owns the copyright?

Defense papers filed a couple of weeks ago asserted that PETA cannot prove that Naruto (male) is the monkey who took the photos. So, even if monkeys were able to hold copyrights on anything, we cannot assume Naruto is THE monkey who holds them.

Slater is being sued along with the creators of a book publishing software, which he used to make a nature book filled with photos, including the monkey selfies.

“The allegation that Naruto is, in fact, the monkey who took the Monkey Selfies is contradicted by other allegations in the Complaint…Specifically, in the Wildlife Book, Mr. Slater describes the monkey who took the photographs as a female, not a male like Naruto.”

PETA is suing as “next friends” on behalf of Naruto, who is unable to file a lawsuit himself.


And why is he unable?


It’s not like these animals had purchased smartphones and were taking photos of themselves in their mirrors for their personal Instagrams, and Slater just came long and snatched them up for exploitation. How did this become such a problem?

So now, there’s a dispute over the gender identity of the monkey in question.

Carol Berman, who has Ph.D students associated with the Macaca Nigra Project, wrote in an email that she “can say with confidence that the monkey in the full body photo is a juvenile male,” pointing out that there is “a round pink spot in his crotch which is the top of his withdrawn penis.”


Alright. Fine.

Even if the monkey is male, you still can’t prove it’s Naruto. But still, let’s assume PETA and friends are correct.

What, then, is the real issue with Slater and his holding of monkey selfies?

Here’s what the motion for dismissal says the issue is:

PETA and primatologist Antje Engelhardt are trying “to commercialize the photographs (without Naruto’s knowledge or consent, which, as a monkey, he cannot give)” so they can “spend the proceeds as they see fit on, among other things, habitat preservation for the benefit of Naruto’s ‘community’ of crested macaques.”

“That is, Next Friends seek to redress a totally different problem — that of habitat loss and endangerment of crested macaques in Indonesia — through the ridiculous vehicle of a U.S. copyright claim.”


My favorite part of this story has got to be Slater’s cheeky lawyer, Andrew Dhuey.

Dhuey had to face a monkey as his opponent for the first time. He did not hold back in the motion to dismiss.

“A monkey, an animal-rights organization and a primatologist walk into federal court to sue for 
infringement of the monkey’s claimed copyright. What seems like the setup for a punchline is really happening. It should not be happening.”

This man was not having it. He later said, “Monkey see monkey sue is not good law.”

Dhuey said that Naruto, as a monkey, doesn’t have standing to sue.

And if PETA wants to establish primate rights in court, “a copyright case is the strangest place to start.”

“This is a pretty straightforward case — the monkey doesn’t have standing under federal court precedent,” Dhuey said.

“As far as I know, no monkeys have gotten close to obtaining a patent,” he said. “If that ever happens — I’m the guy. I’m now the foremost authority on monkey law.”


Slater said he should own the rights to the photograph. He told the Washington Post last year that the selfie’s distribution by Wikimedia and Techdirt as public domain was “ruining my business.”

“If it was a normal photograph and I had claimed I had taken it, I would potentially be a lot richer than I am.”

After a years-long disagreement between Slater and Wikipedia Commons, the U.S. Copyright office clarified that it only registers copyright claims for human authorship, meaning that neither the macaque, nor the nature photographer David Slater, have a valid claim to it.

So as of now, I guess, the answer to our question is this:

If a monkey takes a selfie in the forest, regardless of whether someone is around to be annoying about it, no one owns the copyright.


Monkey selfies are potentially one of the coolest parts about living in this time.

Judging by the smiles, I don’t think the monkeys mind doing it.

Let’s not ruin this for ourselves. Because aside from the macaques,

we’re all human.



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