Can a monkey own copyright?

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In what is perhaps the strangest case on which we have reported, an animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has instituted proceedings in California asserting that a monkey owns copyright in a photograph.

The photograph has already achieved considerable fame. (It can easily be found online). A British wildlife photographer, David Slater, was on the island of Sulawesi, tracking a troop of macaques. He set up his equipment and waited. A monkey duly obliged – grinning into the lens and clicking, producing the now renowned “selfie”. The photographer published a book featuring the photograph.

PETA is claiming that the monkey owns the copyright in the photograph and, as such, should reap the financial benefits. Mr Slater contends that he set up the arrangement and, indeed, held the tripod in place, while the monkey pressed the button. As such, he maintains that he, and not the monkey, is the copyright owner.

For a court to rule that a monkey owned copyright would obviously be groundbreaking and, to say the least, startling. But it is not wholly inconceivable that it may happen, if not in this case, in the future. Women and children, for example, now enjoy legal rights that would have been unthinkable in the past. The rights of prisoners and the mentally ill are currently controversial topics for the courts in this country. If a court were to decide, as a first step, that a monkey had a right to property, it would not be a big leap to say that a monkey could own copyright. Additionally, if the monkey “selfie” shows one thing it is just how close monkeys and humans are biologically related to one another.

In the UK at least, the monkey would not have a case, falling at the first hurdle. To qualify for copyright protection under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988, the author of a work must be either an individual or a company, which rather precludes monkeys.