On Monkey Selfies and "Friends"

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Photos by Naruto, with copyright (by default) to David Slater

Bringing an end to an improbable, years-long battle over "the world’s most litigious selfie," a San Francisco federal appeals court has ruled that Naruto, an endangered crested macaque, does not have legal standing to file a copyright claim against a photographer who provided the camera for said selfie because Naruto, while indisputably accomplished, is not a person. The decision affirmed an earlier decision in a saga that began in 2011, when wildlife photographer David Slater, visiting the Tangkoko Reserve in Indonesia, set up his camera on a tripod with a remote trigger to see what would happen. When the curious Naruto turned up, he grabbed the camera and took a series of goofy selfies.

Slater later included some of the images in a book, which Wikipedia reproduced without his consent. After Slater challenged Wikipedia, they entered murky but entertaining legal territory by arguing that Slater could not hold the copyright for an image taken by a monkey. The US Copyright Office ultimately agreed, ruling in 2014 that copyrights cannot be held by monkeys and thus "the office will not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants.” Enter People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who in a 2015 case against Slater argued that Naruto was, in fact, the author of his images, and that Slater's use of them thus violated Naruto's (evidently non-existent) copyright.

All parties involved, except Naruto, kept fighting. Slater blasted PETA's defense of Naruto's "artistic rights" as a greedy "stunt" that showed disrespect for the macaque, which have in the last few decades lost up to 80% of their population due to poaching and loss of habitat, with only a few thousand remaining. A federal court agreed Naruto could not hold a copyright. PETA settled out of court - Slater agreed to donate 25% of revenue from the images to the Tangkoko reserve and groups that “protect the habitat of Naruto," aka PETA - but they also appealed the federal ruling.

Monday's ruling both affirmed that ruling - Naruto is a monkey, albeit a handsome one, and cannot hold a copyright - and took a dig at PETA for making Naruto "an unwitting pawn" in an ideological game from which they then quietly profited: "We feel compelled to note that PETA's deficiencies in this regard go far beyond its failure to plead a significant relationship with Naruto. Indeed, if any such relationship exists, PETA appears to have failed to live up to the title of 'friend.'" In a celebratory Facebook post, Slater went easy on PETA, denounced Wikipedia, declined to blame Naruto - "That (he) tried to sue me was not his fault" - and said he was happy the case highlighted the critically endangered macaques. "I so hope that wild animals are granted (more) fundamental rights in the future - to dignity, survival, homeland, and their evolutionary privileges. They accept us as part of their landscape, with a big SMILE. We need to accept them as part of ours."

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