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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Monkey Photographer’s Claim Is on the Ropes

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge Wednesday indicated he will dismiss a lawsuit from an Indonesian monkey and PETA, who challenged a wildlife photographer's ownership claim to "selfie" photos taken by the monkey.

Suing on behalf of Naruto, a 6-year-old crested macaque from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and German zoologist Antje Engelhardt say nature photographer David John Slater unfairly profited from Naruto's creative works.

Four years ago, Naruto shot some self-portraits using Slater's camera. The pictures became known as the famous "monkey selfies," which Slater published in the book "Wildlife Personalities."

PETA claims money earned from the licensing and distribution of the monkey selfies 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 a copyright, the selfies should be considered public domain.

During a hearing Wednesday, U.S. District Judge William Orrick appeared unpersuaded by arguments that the Copyright Act of 1976 does not preclude animals from owning copyrights.

"If Congress and the president intended to take the extraordinary step of giving animals standing, they would do so plainly," Orrick said. "I don't see that it can be read as broadly as to go beyond humans when I'm interpreting the Act."

PETA attorney David Schwarz said the case could have serious repercussions for copyright law, and set a precedent that would bar protecting works created by animals or machines.

"The more important concept here is to make sure there is a statutory framework in which those who are legitimately claimed as authors can seek protection," Schwarz said.

Pointing to the evolution of the judicial branch's interpretation of the fair-use doctrine, Schwarz said the power to interpret laws, including who is allowed to own copyrights, lies with the courts.

"You are engaged in a sense in an interpretive act," Schwarz told the judge. "I wouldn't call it a policy act. I would call it giving new life to a statute that's been around for years."

Slater's claim of ownership of the "selfies" amounts to a concession of authorship, Schwarz said, and that the court must determine who is the author of the photos.

Was it Slater, Naruto or both man and monkey in an act of joint authorship? he asked.

Slater's attorney Andrew Dhuey urged Orrick to focus on whether a monkey has standing to sue, which it does not, he said.

"We're engaging in a Socratic debate, which is not appropriate," Dhuey said. "There is no statutory injury. My client should suffer no more burden fighting this case, your honor."

Angela Dunning, attorney for co-defendant Blurb Inc., which distributes the copyrighted photos, asked Orrick not to get distracted by PETA's attempt to obscure the most pertinent question of the case.

"Plaintiff attempted to change the question for your honor," Dunning said. "Does the Copyright Act explicitly grant standing to animals? The answer is no ."

Orrick ended the hearing after about 20 minutes of debate, and said he will likely dismiss with leave to amend.

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