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A monkey's right to a selfie

September 22, 2015

Animal rights activists in the US have filed a lawsuit on behalf of a macaque who took selfies through a nature photographer's camera. The monkey should own the pictures' copyright, they contend.


Activists of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are fighting for the rights of six-year-old Naruto, a macaque (pictured above), who accidentally clicked his own pictures using David Slater's camera in 2011, when the photographer was on a trip to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Slater says he set up his tripod and walked away for a few minutes. When he came back, he saw the monkey snapping away.

"Our argument is simple…US copyright law doesn't prohibit an animal from owning a copyright, and since Naruto took the photo, he owns the copyright, as any human would," PETA said in a statement. "Naruto has the right to own and benefit from the copyright ... in the same manner and to the same extent as any other author," the lawsuit added.

'Could have been richer,' says photographer

The controversy isn't new. Last year, the US copyright office issued an update of its policies, saying it would register copyrights only for works produced by human beings. A photo taken by an animal or artwork by an elephant would not qualify.

As the debate simmered, Slater offered his monkey photograph to buyers willing to pay only for shipping and handling and said he would donate $1.70 per picture for the upkeep of Sulawesi's macaques.

However, Wikipedia distributed the pictures for free, saying no one owned them because they were taken by an animal. A disappointed Slater told the Washington Post last year, "This is ruining my business… If it was a normal photograph and I had claimed I had taken it, I would potentially be a lot richer than I am."

The first of its kind

"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 of herself," PETA said.

"It will also be the first time that a right is extended to a non-human animal beyond just the mere basic necessities of food, shelter, water and veterinary care," the organization added, saying it was "high time" for such laws.

However, law experts felt the litigation "trivializes problems of needless animal slaughter and avoidable animal exploitation worldwide for lawyers to focus so much energy and ingenuity on whether monkeys own the copyright to selfies," Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe told the Associated Press.

Naruto's lawsuit may spawn a whole series of court cases by animals with proven selfie-snapping abilities. For example, earlier this year, an elephant in Thailand took a picture of himself with a GoPro camera on a selfie stick. The resulting selfie, also known as an "elphie," went viral on the internet.

mg/rc (AFP, AP, Reuters)