Who owns the monkey selfie?

Macaque selfie

All of my students from the past few years will recognise this macacque selfie because I use it in my intro lectures and, frankly, pull it out every chance I get simply because I love it. But fellow explorer amongst the more-than-human, Michelle Bastian sent along a story this morning that made it even more interesting:

Wikipedia refuses to delete photo as ‘monkey owns it’

Wikimedia, the US-based organisation behind Wikipedia, has refused a photographer’s repeated requests to remove one of his images which is used online without his permission, claiming that because a monkey pressed the shutter button it should own the copyright. British nature photographer David Slater was in Indonesia in 2011 attempting to get the perfect image of a crested black macaque when one of the animals came up to investigate his equipment, hijacked a camera and took hundreds of selfies.

But after appearing on websites, newspapers, magazines and television shows around the world, Mr Slater is now facing a legal battle with Wikimedia after the organisation added the image to its collection of royalty-free images online. The Gloucestershire-based photographer now claims that the decision is jeopardising his income as anyone can take the image and publish it for free, without having to pay him a royalty.

“I’ve told them it’s not public domain, they’ve got no right to say that its public domain. A monkey pressed the button, but I did all the setting up.” Mr Slater said that the photography trip was extremely expensive and that he has not made much money from the image despite its enormous popularity. “That trip cost me about £2,000 for that monkey shot. Not to mention the £5,000 of equipment I carried, the insurance, the computer stuff I used to process the images. Photography is an expensive profession that’s being encroached upon. They’re taking our livelihoods away,” he said.

Wikipedia at war! “Monkey selfie” sets off bizarre copyright dispute

Any artist whose livelihood is under assault from today’s cavalier attitudes toward copyright can empathize with Slater. But there are some fascinating legal issues to ponder here. Because it is apparently true — at least in some legal jurisdictions – that the person who takes the picture is the person who owns the copyright, no matter who owns the camera.

The natural objection to this line of reasoning is obvious: Monkeys are not people!

But, what if they are? Or, more precisely, what if we aren’t far from the day when monkeys finally win their right to have their day in court?

Look at how this challenges so many of our assumptions about agency, authorship, and ownership!

Does the monkey have agency? Clearly.

Is the monkey the author-photographer? Sure.

Is the monkey the owner? Possibly.

And if this nonhuman has agency, and the power of authorship and ownership, what about other nonhumans?

What about the camera? What kind of agency does it have? Can a camera author an image? Own a photograph?

Mr Slater says “Photography is an expensive profession that’s being encroached upon. They’re taking our livelihoods away.” But it’s not entirely clear who “they” is.

Is it Wikipedia? The legal constructs of public domain? Cheaper photography equipment? Monkeys?

Who owns the monkey selfie - poll results

When I checked the Telegraph‘s “Who owns the monkey selfie?” poll earlier, popular vote gave the monkey a slight lead and it seems to be holding steady…

It’ll be interesting to watch how all this unfolds.

UPDATE 08/08/14

Wikipedia’s monkey selfie ruling is a travesty for the world’s monkey artists

“And it’s not just monkey photography that’s at stake. Animals should not be denied any intellectual property rights simply because they are animals. In a better world, we would have treated our nonhuman artists and inventors with respect. For example:

  • The San Diego Zoo should have obtained signed release forms from their pandas before splashing their images all over merchandise.
  • Sledgehammer manufacturers should be paying royalties for chimpanzee patents on “A Method for Pounding One Thing With Another Thing Comprising of a Substantially Hard Material Such that the Previous Thing Breaks.”
  • Whale musicians should be compensated for the numerous recordings of whale songs that have been sold without their consent.

We all know that artists will not create art unless they are given the unconstrained power to delete their work from the internet no matter where it appears or what it is used for. Our legal regimes have denied this right to animals, so it’s clear they are to blame for the severe dearth of animal art.

It is an incontrovertible fact that a society with more monkey selfies is better than a society with none, so, as long as monkeys are denied copyright, we all lose.”

No incentive

How That Monkey Selfie Reveals The Dangerous Belief That Every Bit Of Culture Must Be ‘Owned’

Who owns monkey selfie? Photographer says monkey was like his assistant

Slater takes the lead in the Telegraph poll

Slater’s edged out the macaque for the lead!