What the monkey selfie picture teaches us about copyright law

On Behalf of | Oct 16, 2014 | Intellectual Property |

How often do you think about state and federal laws? If you’re like most people here in the United States, then you probably think very little about how the law affects you from day to day life.

But as our society becomes more involved in using the Internet and social media to express ourselves, the more we should consider how state and federal laws apply to our situations. More specifically, we should be asking ourselves an important question: are current laws providing us with the protections we think we should have?

We raise this question because of an intellectual property case some of our California readers may have heard about last month involving a photographer and a famous selfie of a crested black macaque. The case was between the photographer, who developed the photo of the monkey after it snapped the picture of itself, and the Wikimedia Foundation, which later posted the picture to its Wikimedia Commons page.


Because the picture was the work of a non-human animal, which is not afforded copyright protections under the law, Wikimedia felt that the picture was public domain and therefore shared it with site visitors. The photographer disagreed though, arguing that he owned the camera that snapped the now famous picture, meaning he owned the rights to the photograph.

So who owns the copyright: the photographer or the monkey?

It was a debate that was finally settled by the U.S. Copyright Office in the third edition of its Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices where, using the example of the monkey selfie, the copyright office explained that registered works must be created by a human being in order to receive copyright protections. What this meant was that the photographer had no copyright claim to the picture even though it was his camera that snapped the picture.

What residents here in California can take away from this case is the fact that as our society puts more and more information on the Internet, the more people need to consider whether this information is protected by the law or if its considered public domain. Because as the monkey selfie case shows, a misunderstanding of rights may not lead to the outcome you want.

Source: The Huffington Post, “Wikipedia Is In A Pretty Weird Battle Over A Monkey Selfie,” Alexis Kleinman, Aug. 6, 2014; photo: “Macaca nigra self-portrait (rotated and cropped)” by Self-portrait by the depicted Macaca nigra female; rotated and cropped by David Slater. See Guardian Article, Daily Mail Article. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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