Monkey See, Monkey Do, Monkey Does Not Profit

Making light of the legal system by pointing out silly lawsuits has become something of a cottage industry in recent years, although deciding whether a potential legal claim actually has merit takes some deeper digging into the facts because, well, things are not always as they seem. After all, writing a sensational headline is easy; completing a proper legal analysis requires quite a bit more effort.

Case in point: What if you heard that a legal dispute led to a recent ruling by the U.S. Copyright Office that animals – monkeys in particular – cannot own copyrights? Sounds less like the real world and more like Tina Fey’s “lawyer who’s a monkey” bit. But if you dig a little, you’ll find a real-world dispute about exactly who owns the photographs taken by a monkey. Seriously.

Here are the facts: British nature photographer David Slater was working in the Indonesian forest in 2011 when a macaque monkey grabbed his camera and began snapping photos. The monkey apparently liked the sound the camera made when the buttons were pushed, resulting in hundreds of photos, including a picture of the photographer and this amazing monkey selfie.

When the U.S.-based Wikipedia posted the photo, Slater objected, contending that it was a copyrighted photo. Wikipedia officials responded to Slater by contending that they did nothing wrong because, as their Chief Communications Officer put it, “monkeys don’t own copyrights.” As true as that statement might be, Slater’s argument was a good one. He makes his living as a photographer, and he takes thousands of photos in the hope that he can sell them for profit. Wikipedia’s actions, Slater argued, cost him a large amount of money that he could have earned on the monkey selfie alone.

U.S. copyright law, however, generally says that whoever presses the button owns the copyright. And in this case, the button was pressed by, well, you know. So, the Copyright Office decided, apparently, to provide its own clarification. Under the laws in Slater’s native England, the photo would have been covered under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act of 1988 based on the notion of “intellectual creation,” although media reports indicate no such trial has taken place in UK courts.

So is this dispute silly or important? We all benefit from the work of professional photographers, through Wikipedia or otherwise, and both Wikipedia and the photographers have a lot at stake here. And anytime money and livelihoods are at stake, the proper resolution of a legal dispute is anything but silly.

Posted: 9/11/2014 9:11:14 AM by Editor | with 0 comments

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About This Blog

Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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