PETA suit claims monkey holds copyright to famous selfie

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(CNN) — One is an endangered monkey with a cheesy grin. The other is a wildlife photographer who stepped away from his camera.

The two are the center of a federal lawsuit filed by PETA, which wants the crested macaque to win copyright of a selfie he snapped with the photographer’s unattended camera.

But before we get to how an Indonesian monkey became the center of a U.S. court case, let’s recap:

Photographer David J. Slater was taking pictures of endangered crested macaques in Indonesia when he temporarily left his camera on his tripod.

Sure enough, the curious simians grabbed the camera and played with their new toy — pushing the button and capturing hilarious selfies, including a now-famous one taken by a macaque named Naturo dubbed “Monkey Selfie.”

But now PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — is suing on behalf of Naturo, claiming he is the author of his selfies.

“While the claim of authorship by species other than homo sapiens may be novel, ‘authorship; under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq., is sufficiently broad so as to permit the protections of the law to extend to any original work, including those created by Naruto,” PETA said in the suit filed in a California federal court.

Slater called the lawsuit ridiculous.

“I am obviously bemused at PETA’s stunt but also angry as well as sad,” Slater wrote on Facebook, adding that he has worked with PETA in the past.

“This makes animal welfare charities look bad which saddens me, deflecting away from the animals and onto stunts like this.”

Wikimedia battle, too

While PETA claims the monkey has copyright of the selfie, Wikimedia claims no one does.

And that has also driven Slater bananas.

Wikimedia, which hosts sites such as Wikipedia, has allowed the Monkey Selfie on its free-to-use website. Slater has asked Wikimedia to take the photo down, but Wikimedia said the photo is uncopyrightable because animals can’t own copyrights — so the selfie is a matter of public domain.

As result, Slater claims, the professional photographer can’t make any money off the famous photo that he believes he has the copyright to.

So who wins?

All this monkey business raises two interesting legal questions: Can an animal even get copyright for a selfie? And can a human get copyright in a monkey’s selfie?

CNN legal analyst Danny Cevallos said to qualify for copyright protection in the United States, a piece of work must meet three criteria:

— It must be fixed in a tangible medium. In this case, that would be a photograph.

— It must be original. “Overall, originality is a low threshold, and probably satisfied by the macaque’s selfie,” Cevallos wrote. But there’s a catch for animals like Naturo. Namely:

— The work must have an “author.” And in the United States, the term “authorship” implies that the work comes from human being, Cevallos said. “Materials produced solely by nature, by plants or by animals are not copyrightable,” he said.

So if the monkey doesn’t win copyright of the photo, can the human?

Not likely, Cevallos wrote.

“Because the monkey cannot create a copyrightable work, that work can never be copyrightable,” he said.

“In the case of a monkey’s selfie by itself, that photograph immediately and forever falls into the public domain, and can be used by anyone, without permission.”

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