Ninth Circuit Declines to Revisit Feud Over Monkey Selfies

(David Slater/court exhibit)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The Ninth Circuit will not rehear a case over the disputed ownership of monkey selfies, closing the book on a three-year legal saga that sought to establish new rights for animals to own works of art.

Earlier this year, a Ninth Circuit panel ruled animals can’t sue for violations of the Copyright Act because Congress did not expressly authorize that in the law. But one of the three panel judges, U.S. Circuit Judge N. Randy Smith, argued in a partly concurring opinion that the case should be dismissed for a different reason: because “next friend” status does not apply to animals. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, sued as a next friend of Naruto, the alleged author of monkey selfies.

A rehearing of the case could have resulted in a new precedent abolishing the rights of people and organizations to sue on behalf of animals in federal court.

In June, photographer David John Slater, the defendant who was sued by PETA, argued against obliterating the rights of animals to sue in federal court. Despite being sued by a monkey himself, Slater said it would be “extraordinary for the judiciary to rule out animal standing as a constitutional matter.”

The Ninth Circuit’s decision came after a settlement was reached in which Slater agreed to donate 25 percent of revenue from the monkey selfie photos to animal welfare charities.

Despite the settlement, a Ninth Circuit panel rejected the parties’ joint motion to dismiss the appeal, stating courts must be careful not to aid the “strategic behavior” of those seeking to manipulate court precedent for their own benefit.

PETA sued Slater in 2015 as a next friend of Naruto, a then 6-year-old crested macaque who used his opposable thumbs to snap self-portraits with Slater’s camera in 2011. PETA argued Naruto is the rightful copyright owner of the selfies, and that all revenues should go to benefit his endangered species and habitat on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

In 2016, U.S. District Judge William Orrick dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice, finding animals lack standing to sue and cannot own copyrights under federal law. PETA appealed the ruling.

On Friday, the Ninth Circuit released a one-page decision stating that a majority of its active, non-recused judges voted not to rehear the case en banc.

PETA spokesman David Perle said, “PETA’s groundbreaking ‘monkey selfie’ case sparked a massive international discussion about the need to extend fundamental rights to animals for their own sake, not in relation to how they can be exploited by humans. Naruto the macaque should be entitled to the copyright of the photos that he undeniably took, just like any other photographer.”

Slater’s attorney, Andrew Dhuey of Berkeley, did not immediately return a request for comment Friday morning.


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