Posted by Kaustubh Nadkarni on December 7, 2015

An entertaining case emerged at the United States Copyright Office back in September in regards to a "selfie" taken by a male crested black macaque named Naruto in Indonesia in 2011. Naruto took “selfies” spontaneously without any human assistance. Consequently, a suit was filed arguing that Naruto, a macaque had the same authorship rights in the photo as human would have and that the photographer whose camera was used infringed by publishing them.

PETA or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has urged California Court to re-consider the copyright infringement case alleging that the photographer is not the author of the selfies taken, but rather Naruto, the macaque is the real author.

The case originally began when British wildlife photographer David J. Slater was on a mission to Indonesia to raise awareness on endangered species via wildlife photography. While attempting to take an ideal picture of the endangered crested black macaques in their habitat, a male macaque Naruto grabbed Slater’s camera and proceeded to take some "selfies." One of the images was a highly animated and grinning selfie, which became an instant viral hit.

Consequently, the image was uploaded by Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons is a ginormous database of photos and videos for anyone to use. Slater was unable to gain any royalties from the image uploaded by Wikimedia.  He petitioned to Wikimedia to take the image down reasoning that the copyright in the image belonged to him as the photographer. However, Wikimedia refused to oblige, counter arguing that it was Naruto, the macaque, who took the picture, not Slater, disclaiming his alleged ownership of the image. Wikimedia further argued that the image was in public domain because only humans can own copyrights under the United States Copyright law.

Nonetheless, Slater adamantly refused this notion by Wikimedia.  He stated that the image could only be captured because of his equipment and his creativity in letting the Naruto take the selfies.  Soon thereafter, this dispute arose before the United States Copyright Office.

In the United States, a copyright protection subsists in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.

The United States Copyright Office sided with Wikimedia. It founded its conclusion based on the updated copyright law, which states that an image taken by an animal cannot be copyrighted in the United States. In fact, the Office went on to state that no one owned the copyright in the image and the selfie taken by the macaque was in the public domain to be used by anyone.

Now, PETA is pressuring the District Court in California to reconsider Copyright Office’s decision. Its argument lies in the preface that under the Copyright Act, “authorship” does not exclude animals. Furthermore, PETA contends that Congress and the Supreme Court have instructed copyright laws to be interpreted broadly, in efforts to protect the benefits that the public yields from works of authorship. PETA went on to say:

“There is no dispute here that Naruto took the photographs spontaneously and without human assistance,” PETA wrote. “In every practical (and definitional) sense, he is the ‘author’ of the works."

For more information, you can find the case is Naruto v. Slater et al., case number 3:15-cv-04324, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Topics: Intellectual property, CopyrightInfringement, CopyrightOffice, copyrights, Intellectual Property Law, MacaqueSelfies