Ninth Circuit Rejects ‘Monkey Selfie’ Copyright Claim

Photo by David Slater and/or Naruto the crested macaque: court exhibit.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Animals can’t sue people for breaking copyright laws, the Ninth Circuit ruled Monday, apparently ending a long-fought legal battle over the ownership of monkey selfies.

A three-judge panel held that if Congress wanted animals to be able to sue for copyright violations, legislators should have clearly written it into law.

“The Copyright Act does not expressly authorize animals to file copyright infringement suits under the statute,” Ninth Circuit Judge Carlos Bea wrote for the panel.

The panel did not address some of the larger legal questions in the case: such as whether a human being can own copyrights for photos taken by an animal or robot.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sued nature photographer David John Slater in September 2015, claiming Naruto, a then-6-year-old crested macaque, was the rightful copyright owner of his selfies.

Naruto, who lives on the Indonesia island of Sulawesi, used his opposable thumbs to snap self-portraits with Slater’s camera in 2011. The photos became famous as the “monkey selfies.”

PETA said that profits from those artistic works should go to benefit Naruto’s endangered species and habitat.

In a partly concurring opinion, Ninth Circuit Judge N. Randy Smith wrote that the case should have been dismissed for a different reason: because “next friend” status does not apply to animals. PETA filed the lawsuit as a next friend of Naruto.

Smith wrote that next-friend status applies only to incompetent persons and minors, not animals. Because PETA lacks standing to sue on behalf of Naruto, Smith said, the case should have been dismissed before reaching the question of Naruto’s standing under the Copyright Act.

“Animal-next-friend standing is particularly susceptible to abuse,” Smith wrote in his partial concurrence opinion. “Institutional actors could simply claim some form of relationship to the animal or object to obtain standing and use it to advance their own institutional goals with no means to curtail those actions.”

Because the case was dismissed for lack of standing, the Ninth Circuit did not reach the issue of whether a human being can own copyrights for works of art created by animals or robots.

Wikimedia, which is not a party in the case, maintains the selfies are public domain because no one can own copyrights for photos created by animals.

Slater, on the other hand, argued that he is the rightful copyright owner because he arranged the conditions which allowed Naruto to press a button and snap the famous self-portraits.

In September last year, PETA and Slater agreed to settle the case after delivering oral arguments to the three-judge panel in July 2017. Slater agreed to donate 25 percent of revenue from the selfie photos to animal welfare charities.

On April 13 the Ninth Circuit panel denied the parties’ motion to dismiss the appeal, stating that courts must be careful not to aid the “strategic behavior” of those seeking to manipulate court precedent for their own benefit.

U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno, of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, joined Smith and Bea on the panel.

PETA contested the ruling in a statement: “Today, the court reaffirmed that nonhuman animals have the constitutional right to bring a case to federal court when they’ve been wronged, but the opinion still missed the point, which was that Naruto the macaque undeniably took the photos, and denying him the right to sue under the U.S. Copyright Act emphasizes what PETA has argued all along — that he is discriminated against simply because he’s a nonhuman animal.

“Meanwhile, the groundbreaking settlement in this case still stands, and 25 percent of the gross proceeds from the photos that Naruto took will go toward supporting him and his community — representing the first time that an animal will obtain a direct financial benefit from something that he or she created. PETA will continue working until the last barrier falls and animals’ fundamental rights are recognized under the law, including their rights as creators.”

Slater’s attorney, Andrew Dhuey of Berkeley, did not immediately return emails and phone calls seeking comment Monday.

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