Gone are the days when copyright infringement complaints were restricted to humans, as this general rule has met its exception in one of a kind case; Naruto –– by and through People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. (PETA) and Dr Antje Engelhardt, Ph.D. vs. David John Slater, Blurb, Inc., and Wildlife Personalities, Ltd, wherein Naruto, a six year old crested macaque, through representatives, has filed a copyright infringement complaint.
The facts of the case date back to 2011, when Naruto took a number of pictures of himself including the now globally famous Monkey Selfie, from a camera that was left unattended by Slater, a professional photographer.[i] In 2014, a book, containing copies of the said selfies, was published by Blurb, Inc. and Slater, which recognized Slater and Wildlife Personalities, Ltd. as the copyright owners of the Monkey selfies.[ii] Furthermore, Slater has been selling copies of Monkey Selfies, for his profit, via Picanova, a Company dealing in the sales and distribution of photographs, as well as through www.djsphotography.co.uk, a website owned by Slater himself.
In the complaint, it has been asserted that crested macaques are extremely intelligent and capable of advanced reasoning. They possess grasping hands and opposable thumbs coupled with the ability to move their fingers independently.[iii] The presence of fingers instead of claws enables them to pick up objects as well as to climb trees, further reinforcing the argument that the use of their hands in any activity including taking selfies is the outcome of intentional and deliberate action. It has also been asserted that crested macaques are capable of noticing and recognizing their own images in reflective surfaces like camera lenses, car mirrors, etc. Furthermore, it has been contended that they are well versed with the workings of cameras as a result of frequently watching humans operate their cameras.
It has been argued that Naruto is the author of Monkey selfies, which were taken without any assistance from Slater. In addition, it has been stated that Naruto, just like a human, has the right to own and benefit from the copyright in Monkey Selfies. If the concerned Monkey Selfies had been taken by a human instead of a macaque, using Slater’s unattended camera, that human would have been declared to be the copyright owner as well as the author of the selfies. While the claim of authorship by a crested macaqueis surely a novel concept, it has been argued that “authorship” under the Copyright Act, is wide enough to permit the protection accorded by the law to extend to original work created by Naruto.[iv]
Naruto, through PETA and Dr. Engelhardt, claims the copyright ownership and authorship of the Monkey Selfies. The complaint seeks to restrain the defendants from exploiting the concerned selfies in any manner. Furthermore, demand has also been made that all earnings from the sale, licensing, etc. of the Monkey Selfies, including defendants’ disgorged profits be administered by PETA in consultation with Dr. Engelhardt, for the benefit of Naruto, his family and community, as well as for the preservation of their habitat.
Whether this complaint serves as the key to allowing all the other residents of the animal kingdom in enforcing their intellectual property rights is something which only time will tell.
[i] Naruto –– by and through People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. (PETA) and Dr Antje Engelhardt, Ph.D. vs. David John Slater, Blurb, Inc., and Wildlife Personalities, Ltd Case no.: 15-cv-4324