Endangered crested black macaque
The inquisitive and endangered crested black macaque – ©Shutterstock

A scary prospect for all creative people

You can usually rely on Mark Twain to capture the essence of the ridiculous. And on the subject of copyright, he didn’t disappoint.

‘Only one thing is impossible for God: To find any sense in any copyright law on the planet,’ Twain wrote.

Like running out of water in the desert, copyright protection can drive creative people mad.

An extreme example I was on the fringe of a few years ago occurred at an international furniture fair in Singapore where one manufacturer accused the other of stealing his designs. A scuffle ensued, one of the combatants fell, hit his head on a piece of the furniture and later died. The other guy fled and remained at large until apprehended some years later by Interpol.

Ludicrous case

Shocking though that incident was, it doesn’t compare with the ludicrous case of a lawsuit over who owns the copyright of ‘selfie’ photographs taken by – wait for it – a monkey!

In 2011, British photographer David Slater spent a week in Sulawesi, Indonesia building rapport with a group of critically endangered crested black macaques. They are naturally inquisitive animals and so Slater mounted his camera on a tripod, set it to predictive autofocus and continuous drive, and kept hold of the tripod as the monkeys moved in.

Grinning toothily

The macaques played with the camera and inevitably tripped off some images – including one of a monkey grinning toothily into the lens, which went viral. And thus began Slater’s nightmare.

When he asked the free information site Wikimedia to remove his images, it refused, claiming Slater didn’t own the copyright because he didn’t press the shutter. But when the US Copyright Office ruled that animals couldn’t own copyrights, the pictures basically had no author.

Having set up the shoot, the composition, lighting and camera settings, Slater argued he had demonstrated sufficient creativity and intent to be the copyright owner.

Barn owl sitting on a camera
A step backward and this barn owl might have a copyright case! – ©Shutterstock

PETA sued Slater

Then along came the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) who sued Slater in 2015 for infringement of copyright.

Except it wasn’t actually PETA who brought the charge, it was a monkey called Naruto. Yep, that’s how they played it. PETA claimed it was acting as ‘legal next-best friends’ for a party incapacitated or unable to represent themselves.

Naruto (PETA) and Wikimedia argued that whoever presses the camera shutter button should be deemed the copyright holder.

Only in the US

Following that kind of ‘it could only happen in the US’ logic to its natural conclusion would surely mean that when a designer (of anything) employs a third party to make the item, he/she automatically cedes the copyright.

Some kind of sanity has prevailed in the Slater v Naruto case, with an out-of-court settlement in August that requires the photographer whose camera was ‘used’ by the macaque to donate a quarter of the royalties generated by the photos to animal charities dedicated to protecting the monkeys’ natural habitat.

Too late, however, for Mr Slater, who has been financially ruined by the six-year battle and no longer owns a camera.

©Natural Images 2017


©2018 TONY NEILSON All Rights Reserved. All images are protected by Australian copyright law and cannot be downloaded or reproduced without my permission. Please contact me.



  • Phil Tucker November 5, 2017 at 6:45 AM Reply

    Common sense and the law are definitely not partners in life.

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