Dinner Table Conversation: If a monkey takes a selfie with your camera, who owns the picture?

September 15, 2017

In 2015, a British wildlife photographer, David Slater, set up a camera in the jungles of Indonesia. Soon, a curious Celebes crested macaque monkey started to fiddle around with the camera (like all good monkeys should!) and accidentally snapped a selfie of its own toothy grin. Cute, right?

PIC BY A WILD MONKEY / DAVID SLATER / CATERS NEWS – (PICTURED: One of the photos that the monkey took with David’s camera. David Slater, from Coleford, Gloucestershire, was taking photos of macaques on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi in 2011 when the animals began to investigate his equipment. A black crested macaque appeared to be checking out its appearance in the lens and it wasn’t long before it hijacked the camera and began snapping away.
By Self-portrait by the depicted Macaca nigra female. See article. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
That’s what the photographer thought! But PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), an organization that helps to protect animals from being treated poorly, sued the photographer and Blurb, the company that published the picture in its book, stating that the photo actually belonged to the monkey.

Now no one knows for sure if the monkey actually cares, but it does bring up an important question: who owns the photograph if the camera belonged to the photographer?

The case caused many a chuckle as it made its way through a court in San Francisco. The photographer believed it was his camera and therefore his photograph—he is allowed to do as he pleases with the photo. PETA, on the other hand, believed that the monkey had rights to his own picture. Just like the creator of a book or photo owns the work, the same rules should apply to animals too.

Eventually, a three-judge panel heard the case, and the photographer and PETA reached a settlement to call off the case. PETA issued a statement that it was merely calling attention to the idea of animal rights, while the photographer decided to donate twenty-five percent of the earnings from the photos to protect crested macaques.

All’s well that ends well, we suppose. But it still begs the question: who actually owns the photo?