SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge on Friday dismissed, with leave to amend, a lawsuit claiming a nature photographer violated copyright laws by asserting ownership over “monkey selfies.”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sued wildlife photographer David John Slater and two companies that published or claimed ownership of the selfies last year.
PETA filed the complaint, along with a German zoologist, as next friends of Naruto, a 6-year-old crested macaque who lives on the Indonesian island on Sulawesi.
In 2011, Naruto used his opposable thumbs to shoot self-portraits with Slater’s camera. The pictures became known as the famous “monkey selfies,” which Slater later published in the book “Wildlife Personalities.”
PETA claims money earned from the licensing and distribution of those photos should go to benefit Naruto’s endangered species and habitat in Indonesia.
Wikimedia, not a party to the lawsuit, has made the photographs available for free online, claiming that because an animal cannot own copyrights, the selfies should be considered public domain.
During a hearing earlier this month, PETA attorney David Schwarz argued the outcome of the case could have serious repercussions for the future of copyright law, setting a precedent on whether works of art created by animals and machines can be protected under the law.
In his Friday ruling, Northern California U.S. District Judge William Orrick III found animals do not have standing to sue, despite PETA’s arguments that the Copyright Act of 1976 does not explicitly forbid animals from owning copyrights.
Orrick cited the 2004 Ninth Circuit ruling Cetacean Community v. Bush, in which a “self-appointed attorney for all of the world’s whales, porpoises and dolphins” sued the U.S. government for violations of the Endangered Species Act on behalf of the globe’s marine mammals.
“The court held that ‘if Congress and the president intended to take the extraordinary step of authorizing animals as well as people and legal entities to sue, they could, and should, have said so plainly,'” Orrick wrote in his seven-page ruling, citing the Ninth Circuit decision.
The judge found the Copyright Act does not “plainly” extend the concept of authorship or statutory standing to animals.
The U.S. Copyright Office supported that position in a compendium of practices it issued in 2014, stating it will not register works produced by “nature, animals, or plants,” including specifically a “photograph taken by a monkey,” according to Orrick’s ruling.
Only Congress and the president can address PETA’s argument that this result is “antithetical” to the “tremendous [public] interest in animal art,” the judge said.
“The issue for me is whether next friends have demonstrated that the Copyright Act confers standing upon Naruto,” Orrick wrote. “In light of the plain language of the Copyright Act, past judicial interpretations of the Act’s authorship requirement, and guidance from the Copyright Office, they have not.”
The judge gave PETA 20 days to file an amended complaint.
PETA general counsel Jeff Kerr said that, despite this setback, he feels history has been made by arguing for the first time that a monkey should be the owner of a copyright, rather than being seen as “a mere piece of property himself.”
“I think people and the courts are seeing that animals are deserving of greater protections,” Kerr said. “We respectfully disagree with the judge’s decision. We think the Copyright Act was written broadly and that Naruto was unquestionably the author of the monkey photos. We’ll review the opinion and determine our next steps.”
David John Slater’s attorney, Andrew Dhuey, did not immediately return an email seeking comment Friday afternoon.
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