An Indonesian monkey that achieved Internet celebrity with a grinning selfie cannot own the photograph’s copyright, a federal judge said this week.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had argued in United States District Court in San Francisco that the rights to the photograph, which was snapped using a photographer’s unattended camera, rightfully belonged to the monkey, a crested macaque.
In a tentative opinion on Wednesday, Judge William H. Orrick disagreed.
"While Congress and the president can extend the protection of law to animals as well as humans,” he wrote, “there is no indication that they did so in the copyright act.”
The images were taken during a trip by the British photographer, David Slater, to the Tangkoko Reserve on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi in 2011. He put his camera on a tripod amid a troop of macaques, setting it so it would automatically focus and wind, and waited for the animals to get curious.
The results included the charming mug of the monkey, identified by PETA as a 6-year-old male, Naruto, grinning broadly and bucktoothed into the lens.
Mr. Slater published a book, “Wildlife Personalities,” that included the pictures, and the images were widely shared online, including without permission by Wikipedia. When Mr. Slater asked the crowd-sourced website to remove the image, it refused under much the same rationale as PETA: Mr. Slater didn’t press the shutter release, so the image was not his.
In September, PETA filed its lawsuit against Mr. Slater, his company, and Blurb, the company that published his book, asking the judge to allow it to represent Naruto and distribute the image’s proceeds for the benefit of the Indonesian reserve’s crested macaques, a critically endangered species.
The photographer’s lawyers asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that a monkey lacks legal standing. Its motion, at times, struck a mocking tone.
"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 punch line is really happening.”
Judge Orrick explained from the bench on Wednesday that he had no authority to extend such rights to animals.
"This is an issue for Congress and the president,” he said, according to Ars Technica. “If they think animals should have the right of copyright, they’re free, I think, under the Constitution, to do that.”
Last July, another legal effort to reinterpret the rights of other primates failed to persuade a judge. The Nonhuman Rights Project argued in a State Supreme Court in Manhattan that two apes being held by a university for research were “legal persons,” highly intelligent and self-aware, and should be removed to a sanctuary. The judge took the case seriously, but ultimately decided that under the law, Hercules and Leo were property, not people.
Despite PETA’s setback this week, the group cast its unorthodox legal battle as a crucial step toward enlarging the rights of animals.
"We will continue to fight for Naruto and his fellow macaques,” Jeff Kerr, an attorney for PETA, said in a statement, adding “As my legal mentor used to say, ‘In social-cause cases, historically, you lose, you lose, you lose, and then you win.’”