Whenever there’s a bizarre or egregious legal case involving animals, it doesn’t require a whole lot of thought to identify which group of animal rights extremists are front and center in the controversy.
The latest such incident involves David Slater, a British photographer who’s become embroiled in a lawsuit over a famous “monkey selfie” (see photo). As reported in The Telegraph newspaper, he said the suit has ruined his life and left him broke.
“The 52-year-old from south Wales, who specializes in wildlife and conservation photography, said he has been ‘left penniless’ after a lengthy legal battle over whether he or the monkey owns the copyright on the photo,” the newspaper reported.
Here’s even more irony: Slater had gone to Indonesia to make photographs that he hoped would publicize the plight of endangered crested black macaque. What he got for his efforts is criminal.
Here’s the story, as reported in The Telegraph:
Back in 2011, Slater spent a week in Indonesia making photos of macaque monkeys, eventually getting the monkeys to press the shutter on his camera while looking into the lens. The result was the famous monkey selfie of the macaque known as Naruto, which quickly was posted on social media and on Wikipedia.
That’s when things got complicated.
“In 2014, he asked Wikipedia to take down his picture after they published it without his permission,” according to the story, “but the web giant refused and said that the copyright belonged to the monkey.”
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled that animals cannot own a copyright, but of course that didn’t stop PETA, which filed a lawsuit against Slater on behalf of the monkey in 2015.
That lawsuit has now reached the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco.
At a hearing last week in front of a panel of judges, Slater’s lawyers said that it was “absurd” for PETA to claim that the monkey was entitled to copyright protection.
As the newspaper reported, one of Slater’s lawyers, Angela Dunning, told the court that PETA was “not even sure they have the right monkey,” referring to Naruto. “It is absurd to say a monkey can sue for copyright infringement. Naruto can’t benefit financially from his work. He is a monkey.”
A Copyright Battle
PETA had a different argument.
“If successful, this [case] will be the first time that an animal is declared the owner of property, instead of being declared a piece of property himself,” the group declared on its website.
“When science and technology advance, the law adapts,” said Jeffrey Kerr, PETA’s general counsel. “There is nothing in the Copyright Act limiting ownership based on species, and PETA is asking for an interpretation of the act that acknowledges today’s scientific consensus that macaque monkeys can create an original work.”
By the way, for all of its frothing about the “horrors” of confining animals, about livestock are “cruelly confined” by profit-hungry producers, and for all the imagery the group loves to publicize showing chickens in cages or calves in holding pens, when you visit PETA’s website, one of the photos prominently displayed to showcase the organization’s “compassionate concern” is a picture of its self-serving founder, Ingrid Newkirk, feeding some horses confined behind iron bars. Hey, what happened to “just leave animals alone?” What about the cruelty of making horses live behind fences, instead of running free as Nature intended? I’ll give you the answer in four syllables: Hy-po-cri-sy.
According to the story, Judge Carlos Bea suggested the suit should be dismissed, asking if anyone could point to a law that said “man and monkey are the same.”
Judge N. Randy Smith said, “There’s no allegation that the copyright could have benefitted somehow Naruto. What financial benefits apply to him? There’s nothing.”
The bottom line here is that while copyright law doesn’t specifically prohibit an animal from ownership of what’s defined as “photographic works to which are assimilated works expressed by a process analogous to photography” — because no one even considered that to be a possibility — a monkey on its own cannot own anything of intellectual value.
There’s a principle in the law called “standing,” and it means that a litigant must have a personal or financial interest in the legal decision to even bring a matter before the court.
Without human assistance, there is no monkey selfie.
Without human attorneys, there are no monkey plaintiffs.
And without PETA pursuing a lawsuit that has bankrupted a photographer who was only trying to promote the very conservation ideals the group claims to support, the world of monkey — and men — would be way better off.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.