SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Suing on behalf of a monkey, PETA claims that a nature photographer cannot claim ownership of selfies that a crested macaque shot with his camera, because Naruto the monkey is the author of the photos.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sued wildlife photographer David John Slater and two companies that published or claim ownership of the disputed selfies, on Monday in Federal Court.
PETA and German zoologist Antje Engelhardt filed the complaint as next friends of Naruto, a 6-year-old crested macaque who lives in a nature reserve on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia.
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 the publishing company, co-defendant Blurb Inc., had no right to distribute the photos, which rightfully belong to Naruto. It also accuses Slater and Wildlife Personalities Ltd. of falsely claiming ownership of the photos.
“Had the monkey selfies been made by a human using Slater’s unattended camera, that human would be declared the photographs’ author and copyright owner,” the 22-page complaint states.
PETA acknowledges the claim of authorship by a nonhuman species is novel, but says the Copyright Act is broad enough to extend legal protections to any original work created by an individual, even a monkey.
A copyright dispute first erupted over the selfies in 2014, when Wikimedia refused to remove the pictures from its public domain repository, claiming no one could own the copyrights because a monkey made the pictures.
The photos remain freely accessible and downloadable through Wikimedia, despite Slater’s copyright claims.
PETA cites Slater’s book to claim that Naruto was self-aware and creating an artistic expression when he snapped the pictures.
Slater wrote that the monkey made “several funny faces” during the photo shoot, suggesting some form of a “fun and artistic experiment with his own appearance,” PETA says in the complaint.
Slater responded to the lawsuit Tuesday with a post on his Facebook page.
“Greedy PETA wishing to exploit the selfie for their own agenda. Same goes for Wikimedia of course. PETA, an animal charity I have worked with in the past to protecting Wild Boar in the UK, are showing themselves to be more interested in themselves, selfie style, than the plight of animals in trouble.”
Slater added: “I am obviously bemused at PETAs stunt but also angry as well as sad.
This makes animal welfare charities look bad which saddens me, deflecting away from the animals and onto stunts like this. …
“(A)n organisation who seeks to criminalise a wildlife photographer to further their own agenda only makes them appear as bad as Wikimedia, with both lacking integrity and honour and a knowledge of copyright law,” Slater wrote, using English spelling. He is a resident of the United Kingdom.
PETA says all profits gained from selling and licensing the photos should go to benefit Naruto and his endangered Macaca nigra species, which face increasing encroachment from human development into their habitat.
The species, with an estimated population of 4,000 to 6,000 today, has lost 80 percent of its members in the past 40 years, mostly due to habitat loss and hunting, according to the International Union for Conservation.
Slater says he is working with a conservation project to promote human interest and conservation for “these astounding animals.” He called PETA’s actions “disrespectful and ignorant” of his work.
“Had they contacted me I would support them in efforts to get animals recognised legally with an aim to promote animal dignity,” Slater wrote. “Sadly they choose to attack me personally in this ridiculous way which puts me under more financial and emotional stress.”
Slater said the images are registered with British and U.S. copyright offices.
PETA seeks declaratory judgment, damages for copyright infringement, a permanent injunction to stop sales and licensing of the photos, and disgorgement of profits from them. It also wants the authority to administer and protect Naruto’s authorship rights.
PETA is represented by David Schwarz, with Irell & Manella in Los Angeles, and by PETA attorney Jeffrey Kerr.
A New York County Supreme Court judge ruled in July that two chimpanzees did not have the same legal rights as humans and therefore could not be transferred from a university laboratory to an animal sanctuary.
New York County Supreme Court Judge Barbara Jaffe said she was bound by a New York Court of Appeals ruling that chimpanzees cannot not be considered human under the law because they cannot be bound by any legal responsibilities or societal duties.
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