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Copyright Law: A Load of Monkey Business?

Is the selfie set to change the world? It could certainly be on track to change the face of intellectual property, if PETA has anything to do with it.

Let us set the scene. It’s 2011 and British nature photographer David Slater is on the island of Sulawesi, following a troop of macaques. He sets up his camera and waits. Suddenly, a cheeky monkey grabs the camera, smiles into the lens and presses some buttons. The photographs that followed went on to become internationally known – featuring in a wildlife book by Mr Slater.

But animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has taken legal action on the monkey’s behalf, claiming that the animal owns the copyright to the successful photographs and should, therefore, reap the benefits financially. Mr Slater contends that he, in fact, was the brains behind the set of photographs. “A monkey only pressed a button of a camera set up on a tripod,” he argues. “A tripod I positioned and held throughout …”

Meanwhile PETA’s argument is that it is not the person who owns the camera that owns the rights but the person/being who actually took the photograph.

According to the Intellectual Property Office (IPO), under UK law, animals cannot own copyright.

So, can a monkey really have any legal standing to bring a claim/own property?

“Probably not!” says Keystone Law’s IP expert, Lucy Harrold. “If you treat the monkey like a child, however, perhaps others can deal with these matters for him on trust (although he will never reach maturity, so to speak). So how could he deal in the copyright? The photographer should own the copyright and, arguably, the monkey is the photographer, but the tripod control argument is a good one, too.

“One might argue for joint copyright ownership between the monkey and the wildlife photographer. The law is probably with the wildlife photographer, but the smart act on his part would be to give some of the profits from the photos to a monkey charity.”


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This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.

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