From the “you thought you had seen everything” department, we bring you the question of who — if anyone — owns the copyright to the now famous “monkey selfie” picture. By now, most of you probably have heard or read about this story. A British nature photographer was travelling in a national park in Indonesia and left his cameras unattended for a few minutes. A band of black macaque monkeys – thought to be among the most intelligent breeds of monkeys — wandered by. One of them grabbed an unattended camera and took a series of “selfies” which actually are quite excellent, stunning and humorous. Here are some examples of the monkey selfies:
Ultimately, the photos ended up on Wikipedia, who refused to take them down after objection from the photographer because, in Wikipedia’s view, the photographer doesn’t own any copyright rights in the monkey selfies since he didn’t take the pictures.
In the ordinary case, a person who takes a selfie normally would own any copyright rights that would attach to the selfie. However, under United States copyright law, a non-person like a monkey cannot own a copyright. Therefore, it is clear (please hold your laughter!) that the monkey doesn’t own the copyright in his/her selfies.
But the question remains: does anyone own a copyright in the pictures? If the photographer had exercised some creativity by setting up the camera, arranging the shot, setting the exposure, etc., and then the monkey just pushed the button, the situation would not be that much different from a picture taken using a timer so the photographer might have a good argument that he owns the copyright. But that does not appear to be the facts here – instead, the pictures appear to be the product of the random acts of the monkey or maybe (if possible???) the creativity of the monkey not the photographer. So it does not appear that the photographer has any claim to the copyright.
For legal purposes, a monkey could be considered “property” under certain circumstances. There have been cases that have held that the owner of the property can own the copyright that might attach to the property in some way – think of a random video of a dog doing something funny. Which could mean that the owner of the monkey is the owner of the copyright. However, the monkey that took the selfie here was a wild monkey. It may be possible to determine whether Indonesia owns its wildlife, but such a result seems doubtful. Instead, the most likely result here is that Wikipedia is correct: no one owns the copyright in the monkey selfies but instead the photos are in the public domain.