The laws of the jungle are often brutal, but so it seems are those of copyright. For years a wildlife photographer has been dragged through the courts in America over whether or not he owns the copyright to a photograph of a monkey, who supposedly took the image itself.
Now, the case is being taken to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who claim to be representing the monkey, and the poor photographer is basically bankrupt. While judges have previously ruled that the monkey cannot own the copyright, PETA has appealed against these decisions.
The battle for ownership of the photo began years ago, when the now infamous portrait of a black Sulawesi crested macaque was posted on Wikipedia without a license. The photographer, David Slater, objected stating that they were stealing his picture, only for Wikipedia to counter that it was, in fact, the monkey’s own work.
After that, PETA decided to take up the case and represent the monkey after Slater used the image in a book of his wildlife photographs, suing both Slater himself and the publishers for breaching copyright laws. PETA sought a court order to administer any proceeds earned by the image on behalf of the monkey, and use it for the conservation of the species, despite having no previous interactions or demonstrable interest in them.
And so started the long, drawn out, distressing, and mostly downright ludicrous legal battle over who owns the “monkey selfie” image. PETA argues that the monkey that took the photo of itself by pressing the button knew what it was doing and so has artistic ownership of the photo. Slater, on the other hand, says that he spent three days in the forest gaining the monkeys' trust, and setting the cameras up that eventually resulted in the selfie taking place, and that it would not have occurred without his input.
The point is, PETA doesn't appear to actually care whether or not the monkey is the original author of the photograph. The animal rights organization has jumped on the case and is using it to further its own agenda, mainly in attempting to set a precedent that an animal can own property, and can be treated as a human in the eyes of the law.
They argue: "If this lawsuit succeeds, it will be the first time that a non-human animal is declared the owner of property, rather than being declared a piece of property himself or herself." But the two are not mutually exclusive. The macaque was not under threat of being or becoming property, and giving it the right to own property does not change its situation. It has, however, resulted in bankrupting and ruining a man who was trying to make a living as a wildlife photographer by highlighting the plight of the endangered macaque.