‘Monkey Selfie’ Photographer Supports Letting Animals Sue

(Photo credit: David Slater/court exhibit)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A nature photographer who was sued over the ownership of “monkey selfie” photos is now asking the Ninth Circuit not to abolish the right of animals to take people like him to court.

It would be “extraordinary for the judiciary to rule out animal standing as a constitutional matter,” photographer David John Slater’s lawyer wrote in a brief to the Ninth Circuit on Friday.

The brief, authored by Slater’s lawyer Andrew Dhuey of Berkeley, California, was written in response to a request for briefs on whether the “monkey selfie” appeal should be reheard en banc by the full Ninth Circuit.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sued Slater in September 2015, claiming Naruto, a then-6-year-old crested macaque, is the rightful owner of copyrights for his selfie photos. Naruto used his opposable thumbs to snap self portraits with Slater’s camera in Indonesia in 2011.

In April, a three-judge panel ruled that animals lack standing to sue people for copyright violations. But one of the three judges, N. Randy Smith, argued in a partly concurring opinion that the case should be dismissed for another reason: because “next friend” status does not apply to animals. PETA filed the lawsuit as a next friend of Naruto on behalf of the monkey.

If the San Francisco-based appeals court were to obliterate animals’ standing to sue in court, that would deny them the right to enforce laws enacted to protect their survival through “next friend” representatives, Slater’s lawyer argued in his 10-page brief.

Dhuey called it an issue of “exceptional importance” that warrants en banc consideration with full briefing and a chance for outside parties to file amicus curiae briefs.

Dhuey wrote that his client “did not choose to embark on a legal adventure in California regarding a photograph taken in an Indonesian jungle. But he hopes that what will be the most exhaustive federal legal precedent on animal rights to date – a case that will forever bear his name -is one that holds open the idea of animal standing in the United States federal courts.”

PETA spokesman David Perle said in a statement that the Ninth Circuit “should respect the established precedent that the U.S. Constitution permits animals to bring legal claims to court, with representation from humans and groups such as PETA when appropriate.”

“The rights of animals are the next frontier in the struggle for civil rights as people and courts around the world recognize that animals are living, breathing, feeling beings, deserving of fundamental rights for their own sake, not in relation to how they can be exploited by humans,” Perle said.

Reached by email, Dhuey said his client made clear in his first filing in the lawsuit in 2015 that “there are quite reasonable arguments for conferring legal standing for animals (via human ad litem representatives) in some areas of law.” (Parentheses in original.)

“He meant that,” Dhuey said.

Before the Ninth Circuit issued its ruling in April this year, the parties reached a settlement in which Slater agreed to donate 25 percent of revenues from the “monkey selfie” photos to animal welfare charities.

In order for the case to be reheard en banc, a majority of the Ninth Circuit’s 21 active, nonrecused judges must vote in favor of a rehearing, according to the court’s en banc procedure summary.

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