In 2011, British nature photographer David Slater made headlines for releasing a photo of a selfie taken by a black macaque. He could never have predicted the controversy he was sparking—that he was on the brink of a long-standing legal battle over whether it was the monkey who legally held the copyright to the photo.
Slater was taking photos of endangered crested black macaques in Sulawesi, Indonesia when one of them hijacked his camera and snapped a group of selfies. Later, some of the photos went viral and were published on Wikimedia Commons under public domain. When Slater asked Wikimedia to take the photos down, they refused, claiming the monkey was the true owner of the copyright.
In an interview with The Guardian, Slater detailed the patience it took to capture such a photograph. He believed the image would be his big break, but sadly, he’s been left broke.
Slater’s problems only escalated from there. In 2015, PETA decided to sue Slater as well, claiming that the monkey should own the copyright to the image. The group requested permission to administer the proceeds for the benefit of the monkey and his friends.
In response, the Copyright Office released a document establishing new policies stating that “The Office will not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants.”
Later, a court ruled in Slater’s favor, saying that the monkey can’t own the copyright. But that wasn’t enough for PETA, who appealed the decision and continued on with the case.
PETA lawyer Jeffrey Kerr insists that the policy “is only an opinion” and that the U.S. Copyright Act does not limit copyrights to humans.
“The act grants copyright to authors of original works, with no limit on species,” he argues. “Copyright law is clear: It’s not the person who owns the camera, it’s the being who took the photograph.”
PETA’s lawsuit takes that a step further, arguing the monkey “authored the monkey selfies by his own independent, autonomous actions in examining and manipulating Slater’s unattended camera.”