Bad News For Naruto: Monkey Can’t Hold Copyright On Infamous Selfie

The monkey seen in this image is actually the one who pressed the button on the camera. Copyright law forbids a non-human animal from holding a copyright, so many believe the image is in the public domain. PETA claimed that monkeys like Naruto should be treated no differently than if a human had snapped the picture. A federal judge disagrees.

The monkey seen in this image is actually the one who pressed the button on the camera. Copyright law forbids a non-human animal from holding a copyright, so many believe the image is in the public domain. PETA claimed that monkeys like Naruto should be treated no differently than if a human had snapped the picture. A federal judge disagrees.

The years-long saga of the “monkey selfie” may have rolled to a quiet end in a federal court in San Francisco yesterday after a judge tentatively ruled that Naruto the macaque photographer does not hold the copyright to images he snapped on a stolen camera more than four years ago.

A quick refresher for those who don’t know the story behind the above image. In 2011, photographer David Slater was shooting pics of macaque monkeys in Indonesia when one of them — supposedly Naruto, though some now claim it was actually a different monkey — grabbed one of Slater’s cameras and fired off several photos, most of them blurry and useless. But among those images was the above self-portrait.

After Slater posted the image and the story behind it online, a number of people began using it without permission. Against Slater’s repeated takedown demands, the image eventually ended up in the Wikimedia Commons collection of 22 million images and videos that are free to use.

Supporters of its inclusion in the collection — including the Wikimedia Foundation — argued that the monkey was the actual author of the photo; Slater just owned the camera. And since U.S. copyright guidelines explicitly forbid non-human animals from holding copyright, they contend that the image is in the public domain.

In Sept. 2015, animal rights organization PETA filed suit in a federal court, arguing that Naruto should be granted copyright, as the photo in question “resulted from a series of purposeful and voluntary actions by Naruto, unaided by Slater.”

The lawsuit also accused Slater of violating Naruto’s copyright by making money from the sale of books that include the self-portrait.

But after hearing arguments in the case this week, U.S. District Court Judge William H. Orrick issued a tentative opinion [PDF] that doesn’t look good for hipster monkey shutterbugs out there.

Pointing to a previous federal appeals court ruling — Cetacean Community v Bush, a case involving the legal standing of sea mammals (whales, dolphins, etc) to bring suit against the U.S. government — Orrick notes that Congress and the President do have the authority to extend the protection of law to animals as well as humans, but that “there is no indication that they did so in the Copyright Act.”

Without legislative or executive guidance, this matter is in the hands of the Copyright Office, which has made it clear that only humans can hold copyright in the U.S.

The judge’s decision does not directly impact Slater’s ongoing attempts to plant his copyright flag on the photo.

In response to the court’s decision, PETA’s general counsel Jeff Kerr released the following statement:

“Despite this setback, we are celebrating that legal history was made in our unprecedented argument to a federal court that Naruto, a crested macaque monkey, should be the owner of property… rather than a mere piece of property himself. We will continue to fight for Naruto and his community, who are in grave danger of being killed for bush meat or for foraging for food in a nearby village while their habitat disappears because of human encroachment. This case is a vital step toward fundamental rights for nonhuman animals for their own sake, not in relation to how they can be exploited by humans.”