My Take On The Great Monkey-Selfie Copyright Controversy


Happy Friday friends! No doubt you've all heard about the Monkey-Selfie heard 'round the world and I thought I'd weigh in briefly with my take. In 2011, nature photographer David Slater set up his camera in the Indonesian rain forest to photograph the indigenous fauna. When he turned his back for a moment, a black crested macaque took the camera and started snapping selfies. That photo (possibly the greatest selfie in history) was later placed up on Wikimedia Commons and Slater sued to have it taken down, claiming copyright infringement.

Wikipedia, the company behind Wikimedia Commons refused to remove it, however, because it argues that Slater doesn't own the copyright and thus cannot enforce his claim. According to Wikipedia, the monkey took the photo, and because a monkey cannot own and enforce a copyright, the photo is owned by no one and exists in the public domain. Slater of course disagrees, and has spent thousands fighting this case. He even claims that it's even starting to ruin his business.

The case has sparked an interesting discussion online and I've seen many arguments in favor of Slater (it was his camera equipment, he did all the legwork required to get the photo and pressing the shutter was only the final step in a long series of steps that he, and only he, participated in, etc.) and as many against (ownership of the equipment doesn't impute copyright ownership, Slater didn't press the shutter and that's all that matters, there was a lack of intent and creativity on Slater's part, etc.). There's a rundown at Slate from a bunch of law professors explaining why Slater will lose.

Far be it from me to quarrel with a law professor, but I think Slater will win this fight for one very simple reason: copyright laws in this country prioritize financial reward for creativity above other rights. Chris Sprigman, a law professor at New York University, says in the Slate article that, “copyright’s not there to reward people for their labor—it's to incentivize people to create new books or poems." While I agree with Professor Sprigman that the original intent of including copyright protection in the U.S. Constitution was for the benefit of society as a whole, I don't think the legislative history really supports that argument very well these days... especially as far as corporate copyright holders are concerned. The Mickey Mouse Act extending copyright term limits is a great example of Congress prioritizing economic rights over moral rights.

And boy oh boy, if Slater wins, there's a ton of money to be had in monkey selfies. When you consider the fact that the only party in this case that could be financially harmed would be the monkey (who, for obvious reasons, cannot represent himself or be represented in the case), there's really no downside in granting the copyright to Slater. All the rest is window-dressing that a court can easily rationalize away.

What do you think?

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA