08 January, 2016

No More Monkey Business - US Federal Court Decides on Monkey Selfie Case

One of the more peculiar cases from 2014 was one involving a selfie taken by a monkey (now having been identified as Naruto), and whether that particular animal could hold the rights to the very photograph it took of itself without any intervention or instruction from the owner of the camera, David Slater (more on the case on this blog can be found here). While the question seemed to have an unequivocal answer, at least to this writer, the fight is all but over, and the District Court of Northern California had to decide the case at first instance.

Following the discussion in 2014 PETA filed a complaint asserting that Naruto, inter alia, was the author of the copyright work (the picture in question) and that animals would not, under the US Copyright Act, be excluded as authors. In their argument, as section 201 affords the ownership for copyright in an author or authors (sans any further definition or express exclusion of anything but human authors), "...to be an “owner” and, by extension, to have standing, the plaintiff need only allege to be the “author” of a disputed work". This is backed up by their argument that there is nothing unreasonable about granting standing to animals, referring to the lack of definition of a human requirement, and the possibility of affording copyright to corporations (i.e. non-human entities).

Bobo finally had an avenue of protection for
his vast collection of pictures of bananas
This case has now been resolved, with a clear rejection by Judge Orrick who presided over the case. The full text of his judgment has not been released, however, he did state during the hearing for the opinion that "...[he is] not the person to weigh into this... [and] [t]his is an issue for Congress and the president. If they think animals should have the right of copyright they're free, I think, under the Constitution, to do that".

The minutes for the hearing further clarify this: "The Court announces the tentative opinion, in line with the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Cetacean Community v Bush, that while Congress and the President can extend the protection of law to animals as well as humans, there is no indication that they did so in the Copyright Act. The Copyright Office’s Compendium is consistent with the Court’s understanding". (links added)

Arguably, the case for animals' rights in copyright protected works seems far fetched at best, and this writer would wholeheartedly agree with Judge Orrick in this instance. While there is, potentially, a moral argument for the affording of rights to non-human animals, what this would do is open the floodgates for outlandish assertions of rights for animals and extend the remit of copyright beyond its (arguable) remit. Even if no express language is used to exclude other species from holding rights, it is difficult to give rights to those that do not understand them nor gain from the royalties themselves (as PETA would, undoubtedly, use the funds gained from those royalties on behalf of Naruto). In the end common sense should prevail, and only an express inclusion of animals' rights in copyright would create this possibility.

The case has truly been a novel one, and might still not be over if PETA decide to appeal the decision. This writer is incredibly skeptical as to the possibilities of their success, but would welcome any interesting discussion on the topic in or outside the courts.

Source: The Guardian

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