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Disqualified: A Monkey’s Selfie is Not Your Photo

Image: David Slater

British photographer David Slater was probably not expecting the worst when he got this selfie in 2011. The photographer travelled to Indonesia and for several days, he was following and photographing a group of wild monkeys.

He then befriended the monkeys, set up his camera equipment in a way that would allow the monkeys to take selfies, and enticed them into looking at the lens and pressing the shutter.

David Slater made about £2,000 from the photo in the first year that it was taken. Then things took a bad turn. Wikimedia Commons uploaded his photos as copyright-free photos. Slater asked the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikipedia to stop using his images without permission and either pay for using them or take them off.

To his surprise, the Wikimedia Foundation said Slater does not hold copyright to the monkey selfies because the monkeys took them! Since monkeys are not human and cannot hold copyright, then the photos are public and not his.

Slater believes he holds copyright to the photos and argued that the images “wasn’t serendipitous monkey behaviour” – he had to use a lot of knowledge, perseverance and sweat to befriend the monkeys and lure them into pressing the shutter while looking at the lens.

Slater and the macaques in one of the selfies

After making £2,000 in the first year of the photo’s existence, the photo has been in the public domain on Wikipedia, usable at no price and making the photographer lose a lot of money. Slater thinks he has lost at least £10,000 although it’s difficult to say exactly how much.

In December 2014, the United States Copyright Office stated that animals could not hold copyright. But this did not deter an American animal rights group called PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). They sued the photographer and his publishers insisting that ownership and copyright be granted to the monkey. PETA also requested that they should be appointed to manage revenue from the selfie for the benefit of the monkeys who are an endangered species.

Some judges found this case absurd and PETA lost the case. But PETA did not give up. The animal rights group appealed the ruling and the case is still ongoing.

In July 2017, David Slater could not travel to court in the United States. The photographer says he’s now broke and unable to pay his lawyer. This case has been depressing and has made him lose a lot of money. He is now considering quitting photography for something else.

So much for animal rights. So much for what should have been just a beautiful monkey selfie.

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