09 August, 2014

Monkey Business - When Copyright and Simians Collide

The law and the world surrounding it can often be dry and, quite frankly, boring to those who don't love it as most of us working within the legal profession. However, sometimes a topic comes through that permeates that misconception and brings the law and its impact into the discussion at large, often through more unconventional events. In this vein a question can be posed: can an animal own the copyright to a work? This writer for one had never considered this and found himself pondering it a bit longer than I would like to admit. Due to this extended contemplation this answer should be shared for those interested in the implications of animal artistry and copyright.

This issue came to light after an image of a macaques taking a 'selfie' was spread around the Internet, springing up a discussion of both copyright and whether the trend of the 'selfie' has well and truly gone too far. The photograph was taken with a camera which the monkey appropriated from David Slater, a nature photographer in his own right. After his acquisition of the camera the monkey took several pictures, a few of which turned out quite fantastic and display the monkey grinning and staring at the camera. The images were shortly thereafter uploaded to Wikimedia, and have remained there since as freely usable images, with Wikimedia firmly contesting any and all assertions of copyright in the pictures and argue they are in the public domain. As posed above the question still stands: can this monkey own the copyright to its 'selfie', or can Mr. Slater claim the rights over the picture even though he did not take the picture himself?

Rick wanted to ride the animal selfie fame train as well
Under the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 a work is only protected by copyright if it is created by an 'author', defined as "...the person who creates [the work]". Arguably, at least on the face of things, the monkey will have no rights in the pictures as animals are not 'persons' within the meaning of the Act, making the work ineligible for copyright. Although Mr. Slater owned the camera and potentially set up the photo he still does not own the copyright for the work as he himself did not take the photograph. Sometimes the final piece of the puzzle is the most important, especially in intellectual property law.

In the United States there is no real definition of an 'author' under US Copyright law, leaving the matter, on the onset, in limbo. However, through the guidance of the United States Copyright Office's Copyright Compendium, the term 'authorship' used in the US legislation "...implies that, for a work to be copyrightable, it must owe its origin to a human being. Materials produced solely by nature, by plants, or by animals are not copyrightable", and that non-human authors such as monkeys, therefore cannot hold the copyright to a work.

The photographer has since argued that the monkey "...was [his] assistant", potentially causing a case of joint authorship in the work or even affording the rights to Mr. Slater outright. Through his own admission Mr. Slater "...set the camera up on a tripod, framed [the shot] up and got the exposure right", giving the final shot to the monkey itself. Right from the start one has to be slightly incredulous about Mr. Slater's assertion here, and with no evidence bar his own word, as the monkey has refused to comment on the matter, his presentation of what happened has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Should he have effectively directed and set out the shot for the monkey he could potentially claim authorship, as framed by Brad Newberg: "If the photographer actually developed it in a certain way, made some tweaks, used some lighting to make some original choices, and said essentially 'Look at my collaboration with this monkey,' then he would have had some part of the creative process", and could potentially claim the rights to the work. In the end this would be a matter he would have to argue in court, and would be hard-pressed to do so.

So far the monkey's picture has lost Mr. Slater over 10,000 pounds since 2011, and clearly presents him with an incentive to pursue the matter further, especially due to the notoriety of the case at the moment. This writer for one would absolutely love to see the argument go into litigation and hopes Mr. Slater will pursue the matter further, if not just for the legal profession's enjoyment. The case would decide the rights of dozens of animals and who knows, maybe one of them will be the new big thing in nature photography.

Source: Ars Technica

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