On Sept. 21, 2015, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a lawsuit against photographer David Slater, the man who last year was robbed of his camera by a macaque monkey in Indonesia.
The resulting “monkey selfie” has resurfaced and again been plastered all over news sites, as PETA has stepped forward to challenge Slater’s claim to copyright of the photograph. PETA argues that because the monkey physically took the photograph, the monkey should own the rights to that photograph.
PETA is acting as a legal “next friend” in court, a role usually reserved for those representing people who are not able to represent themselves due to age or disability. What disability does the monkey have that necessitates a “next friend?”
If the monkey’s disability is the universal lack of critical reasoning, com- mon among all primates, necessary to understand legal proceedings or the concept of rights, this just reinforces its status as an animal and not as a human. It also detracts from humans who cannot legitimately represent themselves in court due to a documented disability, but are,in fact, human – the species that our constitution was written to protect.
PETA has filed several lawsuits on behalf of animals, hoping to garner rights comparable to those accorded to humans under the U.S. Constitution. The animal rights group equates the struggle of animals to that of people groups that have historically been underrepresented legally.
While it is true that our constitu- tion was initially written for a narrow demographic, it has been open to interpretation, allowing the set of laws to adapt to the needs of the greater populace.
However, in 2014 the U.S. Copyright Office updated its policies, including a stipulation that works produced by animals would not qualify to receive copyright ownership. Clearly humans are the extent of those considered under the U.S. Constitution.
With this in mind, if the monkey cannot claim copyright, then what was wrong with Slater using the image for commercial purposes? According to their website, “the very heart of all of PETA’s actions is the idea that it is the right of all beings—human and non- human alike—to be free from harm.” Commercial use of the monkey selfie did not, in any direct manner, harm the monkey.
If animals were extended the same rights as humans, and the monkey were to win the case, then PETA would still lose. At that point, PETA would lose all jurisdictions over the image and the monkey, allowing the monkey to make its own legal choices, which I would be curious to observe.
The argument should really be about whether or not the image should be considered public domain. Originally, Slater sued the Wikimedia Foundation for their use of the image. The organization claimed that Slater should not have copyright to a creative work that he did not produce. This was an inter- esting proposal for those who follow copyright law; that is, until PETA made a spectacle of the situation.
Whatever the result of PETA’s law- suit, Slater should see this controversy as a way to promote his art. Through this latest ridiculous publicity stunt and ensuing media attention, the mon- key photograph has garnered a huge audience.
Even if declared public domain, Slater still stands to profit, and I would not blame him for making the most of it. And next time, maybe he will be more careful of who he lets borrow his camera.