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Is a monkey an artist?

A fundamental principle of copyright law is that artists hold copyright over their works of art. A recent court case in California clarifies this concept slightly: human artists are entitled to copyright protection. Monkeys, no matter how artistic, are not entitled to copyright protection.

How did this come up? According to an article on NPR, in 2011 photographer David Carter set up his camera and tripod in a forrest in Indonesia. A macaque monkey, now named (somehow, by someone)  Naruto, took a couple of selfies. Given the quality of the photos, several groups have wondered who owns the copyright.

The photographer claims that he does, because he provided the monkey with the opportunity to take the photo. PETA believes that the monkey owns the copyright because the monkey is the artist. Wikimedia commons posted the photos based on the belief that because no human took the photo, the photo is not protected by copyright. These arguments are playing out in several countries but the most recent news is that a federal court in California has ruled that an artistic monkey cannot copyright her photograph because animals are not entitled to copyright protection. In that lawsuit, PETA (on the monkey’s behalf or, to use the legal term “next friend” sued the photographer on the basis of copyright infringement. If successful in the lawsuit, PETA would administer royalties, damages, or other funds on the monkey’s behalf. The court, however, dismissed PETA’s suit:

“Congress has not plainly stated that non-human animals have standing to sue for copyright infringement. Nothing in Title 17 of the United States Code even hints at that possibility. Indeed, imagining a monkey as the copyright “author” in Title 17 of the United States Code is a farcical journey Dr. Seuss might have written.”

  The entire ruling is entertaining and unusually definitive. Will that discourage Manny the Cat from trying to cash in? 

UPDATE on March 22: PETA is appealing the lawsuit.  This case remains fun to follow.

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