Monkey See, Monkey Do

Why did this monkey's smiling "selfie" spark a copyright controversy?

Meet a real-life Curious George. In 2011, British nature photographer David Slater went to Indonesia to photograph crested black macaques, a species of endangered primates. During the photo shoot, Slater allowed the monkeys to play with his camera. They snapped hundreds of photos. Most of the shots were blurry, but one of the mischievous monkeys snapped the smiling self-portrait above. 

Photographers like Slater usually have the copyright for their photos. This means that magazines, newspapers, and websites must pay for the right to use them. But Wikimedia Commons, a website where people can download images and videos for free, added the monkey’s selfie to its collection.  

Slater asked Wikimedia to remove the photo, arguing that he owns the image and should be paid if it’s published. Wikimedia replied that since the monkey triggered the shutter, the copyright doesn’t belong to Slater. It is in the public domain, or free for anyone to use.

The U.S. Copyright Office seems to side with Wikimedia. It revised its guidelines to state that the office will issue a copyright only if “the work was created by a human being.” The new guidelines continue: “The Office will not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants.”

Slater believes that these guidelines don’t apply in his case. “A monkey pressed the button, but I did all the setting up,” Slater told a British newspaper. Slater brought the equipment into the jungle and edited the photo after it was taken. Besides, he says, wildlife photographers often use motion-sensor cameras. When an animal moves into the frame, the camera takes a picture, even if the photographer isn’t nearby. In these cases, the photographer does have a legal claim to the copyright. 

What do you think? Should the copyright for the image belong to Slater?

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