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PETA is suing over a monkey's right to own its selfies

In 2011, wildlife photographer David Slater set up a camera on an Indonesian island. Then a monkey came along and pushed the button on the camera, taking this photograph:

(Photo by the monkey, using David Slater's camera)

Ever since then, the argument has raged about who, if anyone, owns the copyright to the photo. Slater contends that as the creative force behind the project, he should be considered the author. Critics — including the publishers of Wikipedia — counter that only the person who actually clicked the shutter can be the copyright holder of a photograph. And since that "person" was a monkey, who PETA claims is named Naruto, that means no one owns the photo.

Now the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has seized on the case to strike a blow for animals rights. They are suing Slater and asking the court to declare that the monkey is the rightful owner of the copyright. PETA wants revenues from licensing the photograph put into a fund that would be used for the benefit of this crested macaque monkey and other members of this endangered species living on the island.

PETA is going to face an uphill battle. Copyright law assigns copyrights to "authors," and doesn't explicitly say that authors must be human beings. However, the US Copyright Office has long taken the position that the law implicitly requires authors to be human beings. Its guidelines specifically list "a photograph taken by a monkey" as an example of a work not subject to copyright protection, alongside "a mural painted by an elephant."

The Copyright Office isn't the final authority on interpreting copyright law, so in principle the courts could overrule this interpretation. But it's certainly not going to help PETA's case.