Do monkeys care if they own copyrights? No, really - do they?
Just so we're clear, I'm talking about literal monkeys [as in primates]. I'm not referring to monkeys in the figurative sense, like, "Hey, those politicians in Washington are a bunch of monkeys." No, I'm literally asking - does a mammal with an affinity for throwing it's own poop care if it posses legal ownership of a copyrighted photograph? Probably not, but a professional photographer, on the other hand, places high value on the ownership of copyrighted photographs because that's the bread and butter of their industry. This is all pretty obvious, right?
Enter PETA - the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals. For the past two years PETA has spent a small fortune on legal fees to make the case that a wild animal owns the rights to a photograph.
If you're unfamiliar with the situation this all probably sounds pretty crazy. And it should. This is the sort of nonsensical exploitation of the legal system that PETA engages in on a weekly basis. PETA has a long history of harassing and suing businesses in an attempt to drum up publicity for supposed animal rights issues. This story is no different.
But how exactly did PETA get into a legal entanglement over a photograph of a monkey? The whole mess stems back to a business trip taken in 2011 by one David Slater, professional nature photographer. That's when David traveled to Indonesia where his camera was briefly swiped by Naruto, a 7-yr-old crested macaque [which is a type of monkey - trust me, I looked it up]. Being the playful little primate that he was, Naruto used the camera to snap a selfie. It was the world's first primate selfie! Cute.
After the trip ended David was rather proud of the photo he now thought he possessed. The picture got some circulation online and found its way to Wikipedia. When Wikipedia posted the photo on their website, David asked that it be removed. After all, it's a photograph that was taken with his camera during his business trip and, since he's the reason the photo exists, he'd like its copyright claims to remain in his possession. David may not have personally taken the photo, but neither did anyone at Wikipedia. Wikipedia, however, argued that the photo wasn't his because it was taken by a primate.
The picture and the dispute over its ownership garnished international media attention with many legal experts giving their unsolicited 2-cents to various media outlets on whether or not David was it's rightful owner. Cable news outlets loved the story because it gave them a chance to talk about monkeys and flash a silly photograph on the TV screens of their viewers.
And that's where PETA comes into this equation. PETA, seeing that this was a story that was gaining traction with the major news outlets, decided they needed to get involved. So in 2015 they filed a lawsuit against David on behalf of Naruto the monkey.
But why did they decide to get involved, you asked? Were they owners of the monkey in the photo? No. Did they fund David's trip to Indonesia? Nope. Are they in possession of the deed to the land where the monkey photo was taken? Absolutely not. PETA's only feasible reason for filing this lawsuit was so they could be part of an international news story... And it worked.
Thus begins the legal dispute of Naruto v. Slater, Naruto being a monkey who snapped a selfie and Slater being the photographer who owned the camera. Although in reality this case wasn't "Naruto v. Slater" - it was actually "PETA v. Slater". Naruto didn't file the lawsuit, hire a lawyer or verbally complain that someone was using his photo. How could he? He's a frickin' monkey! And he has no bank account or attorney... At least, he didn't until PETA showed up.
For the next two years PETA basically ruined David’s life. The time, legal fees and anxiety created from being involved in a massive lawsuit can't really be summed up in words. Anyone who's ever been sued knows it's a stressful and time consuming process that, arguably, shortens your lifespan. PETA, a massive multi-million dollar organization, squared off with Slater, an independent photographer who spends most of his life living out of a backpack. Just to recap, David takes pictures for a living; pictures of animals, the ocean and natural landscapes. Like a lot of photographers, he's self-employed and makes his living by traveling around the planet, snapping photos and selling the rights to bigger media outlets. While I have no idea what David personally earns, the average professional photographer brings home somewhere between $18,850 and $48,000 annually. Compare that to PETA's annual budget of $37 million and it should be pretty obvious this wasn't exactly a fair fight. PETA has the time, money and power to keep a lawsuit going for years. David, on the other hand, probably does not have access to those kinds of resources [unless his parents are very wealthy].
All that being said, David and PETA [not Naruto] have finally come to a consensus on how this case should end. David will donate 25% of any future revenue earned off the monkey selfie to charities that specialize in protecting crested macaques in Indonesia. It's a safe bet he's okay with the results of this case because David is an outspoken lover of animals and wildlife.
But, speaking in terms of legality issues, is that a fair agreement? David owned that camera, not the monkey. David didn't ask Naruto to pick up his equipment and take a selfie - the monkey did it regardless of David's original intentions for use of the film or unused data on his camera. If a casual observer smeared paint on the canvas of an artist, does the artist no longer own that canvas? Of course it doesn't work that way - the artist still owns his or her purchased canvas. One might even argue that the person who smeared paint on the artist's canvas is a vandal. In fact, this very specific hypothetical example I'm using actually took place in Houston at the Menil Art Gallery in 2013 when a college student painted on a classic Picasso piece the gallery had on display. Did the college student suddenly own rights to the painting? No, he got two years in prison. Of course, I'm not suggesting he we send a monkey to jail for taking a selfie with a photographer's camera, but if you can see how the painting still belongs to the art gallery then surely you can understand how the photograph still belongs to the camera's rightful owner.
I don't personally know David Slater. I'm only familiar with his photography because he has a website online where he shares examples of his work. Based on his website it's apparent that besides taking lots of pictures of nature he also photographs pictures of pollution and efforts to clean up trash. He clearly loves the planet and he respects wildlife. You might say he's devoted his life to these passions. That means PETA spent two years using the government to attack and intimidate someone who has devoted their life to protecting and documenting the Earth's natural beauty. Let that sink in for a minute.
Regardless of how you feel about who owns this photograph, one thing is for certain: PETA and Wikipedia are most certainly not its rightful owners. They represent two massive organizations with the time and power to attack the little guy and that's exactly what they did. Is it possible that David would have donated the money to charitable monkey protection efforts regardless of PETA's involvement in this legal case? Yes, because he's the kind of guy who loves the planet. PETA, on the other hand, euthanizes over 81% of the animals brought to them. You'd think they'd use that massive budget to save the lives of vulnerable animals but that's not reality. Instead PETA uses the hard arm of the law and the invisible hand of government to bully a little guy and, despite the fact that they do this sort of thing all the time, the American Left still seems to believe PETA is an honorable organization. Ironically there's nothing ethical about the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals. Don't kid yourselves, folks. This has nothing to do with animal rights. The monkey doesn't care if it owns a photo. Monkeys only care about eating bananas, throwing their own poop and fornicating in public. Which means, on the evolutionary scale, monkeys are far more advanced than anyone affiliated with PETA.