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Who Owns A Monkey's Selfie? No One Can, U.S. Says

This 2011 image taken by a crested black macaque in Indonesia has ignited a debate over who owns the photo. The camera's owner says the image belongs to him. In its new manual, the U.S. Copyright Office disagrees.

This 2011 image taken by a crested black macaque in Indonesia has ignited a debate over who owns the photo. The camera's owner says the image belongs to him. In its new manual, the U.S. Copyright Office disagrees. David J Slater/Caters News Agency/Wikimedia Commons hide caption

itoggle caption David J Slater/Caters News Agency/Wikimedia Commons

The question of who owns a striking image taken by a crested black macaque may be closer to being settled, as the U.S. Copyright Office says the photo can't be copyrighted — by the person who owns the camera or by any other entity — because it wasn't taken by a human.

The remarkably photogenic monkey won fans by capturing her own smiling image back in 2011, after a group of macaques in Indonesia appropriated British wildlife photographer David Slater's equipment. The resulting image went viral — and sparked an argument between Slater, who says he owns the photo, and others who say he doesn't.

The question got new attention earlier this month, when Slater talked about his efforts to get Wikimedia to take the image down from its "Commons" section, which collects open-source material. The Web service's editors refused, saying that neither the monkey nor the man owned the image.

And now Ars Technica brings us an update, after spotting what seems to be a reference to the monkey-versy in the U.S. Copyright Office's newly updated manual, the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices. (The manual's public draft version was released Tuesday; the final version will take effect in December.)

Chapter 300 of the compendium's 1,222 pages explains what the office calls "the Human Authorship Requirement," in which it notes that "copyright law only protects 'the fruits of intellectual labor' that 'are founded in the creative powers of the mind.' "

Here's the list of examples:

• A photograph taken by a monkey.
• A mural painted by an elephant.
• A claim based on the appearance of actual animal skin.
• A claim based on driftwood that has been shaped and smoothed by the ocean.
• A claim based on cut marks, defects, and other qualities found in natural stone
• An application for a song naming the Holy Spirit as the author of the work.

On that last entry, we'll note that the office states elsewhere that it's OK to claim divine inspiration for a work — you just can't claim the divinity did all the work.

As we reported earlier this month, Slater has said that a court may have to decide the issues of authorship and ownership that the case brings up.

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