It has become one of the most well-known wildlife photographs in the world: A jet black monkey with piercing red eyes smiles tentatively into the camera, revealing its yellow teeth.
But when British wildlife photographer David Slater took the photo in 2011, there was no way he could have foreseen why the image would eventually be splashed across every news outlet from the United States to Russia.
The story behind the selfie is one that started in the forests of Sulawesi, and is currently languishing in the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Along the way, the narrative has become convoluted, stretched, and tangled, but at the heart of it, there remains one central question: Can a monkey own the copyright on a photograph?
It all began when Slater traveled the world to Indonesia in order to take photos of crested black macaques to raise awareness of their plight.
Spending three days with the monkeys, Slater eventually gained the troop's trust. “It wasn’t easy,” he tells IFLScience. “They were going through quite dense tangly forests, off the path, under fallen trees, over fallen branches, really hard stuff. But slowly they began to accept me.”
“By the second day, it was clear that they had absolutely accepted me into their group. When we sat down together, they would come over and start jumping on me and playing with me.”
It was during these moments of play that the origins of the monkey selfie began to emerge. Originally, Slater just wanted to take some photos of himself among the troop, setting the camera up on a log. It was not long, however, until the shiny lens attracted the attention of the monkeys themselves, and they tried to steal it.
When the monkey selfie first did the rounds, many incorrectly reported that it was at this point that the monkey pressed the shutter release and took the image, but Slater says this is not so. After seeing their interest in the camera, he actually decided to set it up on a tripod in the forest, attach a shutter release cable to it, and then lie on the floor and hold the tripod legs to stop it from tipping over.
“They started playing with the cable release,” says Slater. “They were putting it in their mouth, they were squeezing it, and I heard the shots going off as the monkey was sat in front of the camera, making all these funny faces.”
“In a nutshell, that is the long and the short of it.”
It wasn’t until Wikipedia got hold of the image that things started to go downhill. “They decided that because the monkey pressed the button, I had no entitlement to it,” Slater explains. Their argument was that as the monkey took the image, it should have the copyright. However, since it is an animal, it can’t have a copyright and therefore the image is public domain. This completely ignored the creative input that Slater had to give for the picture to occur in the first place.
The takedown requests by Slater were ignored, and he decided to give up. That was until the annual Wikipedia conference came around two years later. “At their 2014 Wikimania conference, they used printed out boards of my monkey selfie as mascots, and were encouraging people to take their own selfie with the selfie, with Jimmy Wales himself doing this,” recounts Slater.
It was at this point that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) reared their head. They had been following the debate about whether or not a monkey can own a copyright, and decided to jump on the case to prove their own agenda.
“They’d seen the comment that the monkey should own the picture, but sadly the monkey can’t own copyright,” Slater explains. “PETA then said, ‘well where does it say that in US copyright law?’”
After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring lawyers, PETA decided to take the issue to court, in a bid to further the argument that animals should be awarded the same rights as humans. But in order to argue for copyright on someone's behalf in the US, you need the legal guardian of that person on your side. Obviously, the monkey couldn’t represent itself, so PETA found a primatologist who worked with the macaques and who claims that she has known the monkey in the image from birth.
The monkey who took the photo was identified as a young male named Naruto, although Slater disputes this and says that the monkey in question was actually female. Either way, Slater was served with papers by a man in a black suit, stating that he was being sued by the monkey for copyright infringement. “At first, I thought it was a joke,” he says.
The case was promptly thrown out. “The judge said that if the US government wanted monkeys to have these rights, it would be a matter for the President or something along those lines,” recalls Slater.
But the monkey appealed. “Technically the monkey didn’t like the judgment,” says Slater, and decided to take the matter to a higher court. This appeal was heard a few weeks ago, and that is currently where the matter stands. Slater is “99 percent” sure that he’ll win, but not without first having taken a heavy hit.
“Wikipedia owes me big time,” laments Slater. “They have lost me so much money over this.”
This has cost Slater financially, as he hasn't been getting royalties from its use on t-shirts, billboards, and even album covers, and he's been shelling out for lawyers to defend himself. His health has also been rocked, not to mention his photography career being shaken.
Yet what troubles Slater the most is that all this furor has distracted people from the original reason he trekked through the jungle to take images of the monkeys in the first place. “The story was not about the monkeys anymore, which was really upsetting for me because that’s the reason I took the picture,” he says. “Nobody cared about the monkeys all of a sudden because it was all about copyright and Wikipedia.”
The crested black macaque is a critically endangered primate, threatened by hunting from local residents who consider its meat a delicacy. PETA claims to be fighting for the monkey, but in the process, they have ruined a man who was simply trying to help them.