The law addresses some pretty strange issues at times. The case of the “monkey selfies” is a good example.
In 2011, during a visit to a wildlife reserve in Sulawesi, Indonesia, photographer David Slater left his camera in an area where it was found by a crested macaque named Naruto. When Slater later retrieved the camera, he learned that Naruto apparently had used the camera to take a series of “selfie” photos. Whether the monkey’s action was deliberate or unintentional, no one knows for sure — but as selfies go, Naruto’s handiwork is pretty good. The selfies are well-framed, Naruto flashes a wide apparent grin, and there’s none of the squinting and self-consciousness that typically make human selfies less than satisfying. People thought the photos were pretty funny, and Slater published them in a book called Wildlife Personalities.
That’s where the law stepped in. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a lawsuit, claiming that the publication of the book violated the copyright laws and that the proceeds of the sale of the book should be administered by PETA and used to Naruto’s benefit. PETA’s lawsuit was dismissed by the district court, which concluded that there was no evidence that Congress intended the copyright laws to apply to and protect animals.
After the case was appealed and argued to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, the parties reached an agreement that was announced yesterday. Under the agreement, PETA dismisses its lawsuit, Slater agrees to donate 25 percent of future revenue from the monkey selfies to charities dedicated to protecting Naruto’s habitat, and the parties released a joint statement. The statement reads: “PETA and David Slater agree that this case raises important, cutting-edge issues about expanding legal rights for non-human animals, a goal that they both support, and they will continue their respective work to achieve this goal. As we learn more about Naruto, his community of macaques, and all other animals, we must recognize appropriate fundamental legal rights for them as our fellow global occupants and members of their own nations who want only to live their lives and be with their families. ”
Because the case was resolved by a voluntary settlement, we’ll have to wait to determine whether monkeys in fact are protected by the copyright laws — and at some point, as more of these lawsuits get filed, we’ll undoubtedly learn whether monkeys have a right of publicity, and a right of privacy, and for that matter a right to contest whether they should be represented in court by groups like PETA. Once you start down the road of animal legal rights, the list of potential claims is close to endless.
But for me, the fundamental question is whether Naruto actually intended to take a series of selfies. If he did, it indicates a significant degree of technological understanding — but it also makes me lose a little respect for him. Monkeys also are obsessed with selfies? I thought they were better than that.