Monkey vs Photographer – Who owns the photo?

A United States appeals court has been busy this week with a unique debate about whether a monkey can own the copyright to a selfie. Naruto, an Indonesian macaque is famous for very unique reasons. First and foremost is his ability to take on point selfies that would make the Kardashians green with envy. Second is his astonishing involvement in the copyright infringement legal bout with a San Francisco publishing company.

The ‘monkey tail’ begins in 2011 when photographer David Slater spent time in Indonesia with a troop of macaques. He found himself interacting with the monkeys coaxing them to press the shutter of his camera while posing in front of the lens.

These images became the subject of a legal dispute in 2014 when Slater asked bloggers to stop using them without permission. Wikipedia claimed the photos weren’t copyright-able because the monkeys were the actual creators of the image and the US Copyright Office went on to rule that animals cannot hold copyrights.

Fast forward to this week where the debate continues in the court of appeals as to the legitimacy of copyright and, believe it or not, a monkey’s position in this world as an equal to man based on their physiological abilities. Further to this is the argument, “Who owns the photo?” The owner of the equipment? Or the unassuming mammal who has the ability to technically take the selfie with more skill than the average smartphone owner?

One argument is the photo’s value being of little value had it not been snapped by a monkey. The success of the images have bought attention to the specie with interest in ecotourism that has made the locals realise there is value in protecting the monkeys. The pictures could in effect save the species by drawing attention to them – so who deserves the recognition and financial gain from this? Is it the skilled monkey or is it the little known photographer who provided the equipment?

It may seem ridiculous but this case highlights the importance for photographers and especially businesses posting images online to ensure they protect themselves foremost as well as their intellectual property. For instance, a vet clinic gains high response rates for an image they post of one of their patients online. Have they sought permission? It’s an animal so is consent required? I know many who would argue that consent is necessary when it involves their pet’s images online. They are family members after all and no longer seen to be animals.

Another perspective to take into consideration. Who owns the image? Is it the individual who technically took the photo or is it the owner of the equipment used? The ramifications influence copyright of producers who rent expensive equipment to produce their content. These include when a company hires a photographer or videographer to capture their business. Who actually owns the copyright to this expensive intellectual property? We’ll leave it to Naruto and his expensive legal team to give us insight on this monkey business.

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