Monkey Selfies, Elephant Paintings, and the Future of Copyright Law

Now we know: If a monkey snatches a camera and takes a photo of herself, the camera owner can’t copyright the resulting image. Neither can the monkey.

This isn’t an academic issue. Back in 2011, a fabulous-looking female crested black macaque in Indonesia swiped the camera of renowned wildlife photographer David Slater. The monkey snapped a selfie, and the image went viral. Slater tried to stop the Web service Wikimedia and others from posting the photo for free, because he wanted to sell it. Wikimedia refused, saying that for legal purposes no one owns a photo snapped by a monkey.

Sharp-eyed copyright mavens last week noticed a relevant aside in a newly updated manual issued by the U.S. Copyright Office. Chapter 300 of the 1,222-page Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices explores “the human authorship requirement.” The doctrine holds that “copyright law only protects ‘the fruits of intellectual labor’ that ‘are founded in the creative powers of the mind.’” Apparently that implies the human mind, as the compendium’s authors provided a list of examples of non-copyrightable material that includes a photo taken by a monkey.

Other examples: a mural painted by an elephant and driftwood sculpture shaped by the ocean.

No word yet on whether the macaque plans an appeal.

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