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Copyright and a Monkey “SELFIE”

Posted by Brandon Selinsky on Aug 15, 2014 11:23:21 PM
Brandon Selinsky

Do you have a Complicated Copyright? Read this story.

Imagine this: a man is on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi taking photos of crested black macaques, when one of the monkeys takes the man’s camera and snaps a couple hundred photos. This isn’t the start of a bad joke or a fictional scenario; rather, it is the humorous start to what has become a widely publicized international copyright issue.

Most of the photos taken by the monkey were blurry and unusable, however, a few photos were perfect and brilliant photos captured of the monkey’s own face - a “monkey selfie.”  The “monkey selfie” went viral and even made its way to Wikipedia. David Slater, the man whose camera was used, is now threatening to sue for copyright infringement if the photo is not taken down. Wikimedia, the foundation that manages Wikipedia, is saying “no way” - the photographs are in the public domain and therefore, freely available for use by the public and on Wikipedia.

Who Owns the Copyright?

This unique story raises some interesting issues: Who owns the copyright in this case? The monkey? David Slater, who owned the camera that was used? Does no one use the copyright since it was a monkey who took the photo? Who owns copyrights to “selifes” taken by humans in general?

It is notable that Slater was a UK citizen in Indonesia and that Wikimedia is a U.S. charitable organization that published the photograph on an internet page seen by individuals across the globe. Under U.S., UK, or Indonesian laws though, the result would likely be the same: for a work to be protectable, it must have been authored (i.e. created) by a human.

Slater’s contention that he owns the copyright because it was his camera isn’t supported by case law or statute.  In fact, the U.S. Section 503.03 of Compendium II of Copyright Office Practices states that “works produced by mechanical processes, by random selection without any contribution by a human author, and works owing their form to forces of nature and lacking human authorship are not registrable.”  This seems to stand in almost direct contradiction to Slater’s argument.

What About Robots?

Though this might seem like a bizarre or funny topic in copyright news, many theorize that the “selfie” in relation to copyright law will soon produce different types of problems. For instance, The Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center have suggested that the problem of the monkey selfie might have a greater impact when it comes to our use of robots presently and in the future. For instance, who will own literary and artistic works that are made by robots with Artificial Intelligence when we all know that a robot’s movements and activities originate from a human being? Will the U.S. Copyright’s rule stating that only materials made and produced by humans still stand? Or will the U.S. Copyright Office soon have to expand and broaden the rule’s interpretation?

Perhaps the laws will change to account for these changes in technology. But for now, the case law and statutes state clearly that only human made work is copyrightable.   If you’d like more information regarding current international or domestic copyright laws, contact the attorneys at Whitcomb Law, P.C. today.

Topics: Intellectual Property, Trademark Law