A San Francisco appeals court attempted on Wednesday to resolve a three-year dispute over the rights to a series of self portraits, or ‘selfies’, taken by a macaque in Indonesia.
The images were taken using a camera owned by the British nature photographer David Slater during a trip he made to Sulawesi in 2011. Three years later, Slater asked the blog Techdirt and Wikipedia to take down some of the images, which he had originally self-published in a book entitled Wildlife Personalities, after the sites had used them without asking his permission.
The websites refused to do so, claiming that Slater had no rights to the images as he had not actually taken them, a position that was supported by the US Copyright Office in August 2014. However, Slater argued that while he did not actually press the shutter, the monkeys would not have done so without his careful elicitation.
“It wasn’t serendipitous monkey behavior,” he told the Guardian.“It required a lot of knowledge on my behalf, a lot of perseverance, sweat and anguish, and all that stuff.”
The US-based animal rights group Peta added to the British photographer’s woes in September 2015, when it decided to sue Slater on behalf of the ‘selfie monkey’, which it identified as a 6-year-old male named Naruto.
Peta contended that the rights should go to Naruto and all proceeds used for the benefit of the crested macaques living in Naruto’s home reserve in Sulawesi.
“The act grants copyright to authors of original works, with no limit on species,” Jeffrey Kerr, a lawyer with Peta, told Associated Press after the group filed the suit in 2015. “Copyright law is clear: it’s not the person who owns the camera, it’s the being who took the photograph.”
If everybody gave me a pound for every time they used [the photograph], I’d probably have £40m ($51.7m) in my pocket. The proceeds from these photographs should have me comfortable now, and I’m not
In 2016, a judge determined that animals were not covered by the Copyright Act and ruled against Peta, which then appealed the decision. The San Francisco court heard oral arguments for that appeal on Wednesday. Slater watched a livestream of proceedings from his home in the UK.
“Every photographer dreams of a photograph like this,” Slater said of the image in question, speaking to the Guardian. “If everybody gave me a pound for every time they used [the photograph], I’d probably have £40m ($51.7m) in my pocket. The proceeds from these photographs should have me comfortable now, and I’m not.”
Wednesday’s court proceedings attempted to establish whether Peta had a close enough relationship to Naruto to represent the monkey in court, and whether it had been negatively affected by failing to be recognised as the copyright-holder of the selfie.
“There is no way to acquire or hold money. There is no loss as to reputation. There is not even any allegation that the copyright could have somehow benefited Naruto,” said Judge N Randy Smith. “What financial benefits apply to him? There’s nothing.”
Slater even accused Peta of misidentifying the monkey.
“I know for a fact that [the monkey in the photograph] is a female and it’s the wrong age,” he told the Guardian. “I’m bewildered at the American court system. Surely it matters that the right monkey is suing me.”
Despite the protracted legal battle, Slater says he has no regrets about encouraging the macaques to take the photographs.
“It has taken six years for my original intention to come true which was to highlight the plight of the monkeys and bring it to the world,” he told the Telegraph. “The locals used to roast them, but now they love them, they call it the ‘selfie monkey’.”