U.S. Judge Rules Monkey Can't Own Selfie Copyright

The ruling says a macaque that snapped grinning selfies that went viral last year online does not own the photographs.

A US judge has ruled that a macaque monkey who snapped grinning selfies that went viral last year online does not own the copyright to the photographs.

Activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals brought the case in San Francisco on behalf of Indonesian simian Naruto, who shot to fame last year after a photographer published pictures taken by the monkey with his camera.

PETA petitioned the court to have the macaque "declared the author and owner of his photograph."

But in a preliminary ruling Wednesday, Judge William Orrick said that "while Congress and the President can extend the protection of law to animals as well as humans, there is no indication that they did so in the Copyright Act."

The photos were taken in 2011 on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi by British nature photographer David Slater. He later published a book of his photographs, which included two selfies taken by six-year-old Naruto.

The San Francisco-based company that published the book - Blurb - was named as a co-defendant in the case.

In filing the lawsuit, PETA had argued that "US copyright law doesn't prohibit an animal from owning a copyright, and since Naruto took the photo, he owns the copyright, as any human would."

Slater insists he owns the rights since he set up the tripod and walked away for a few minutes only to find out that the monkey had grabbed his camera and snapped away.

When the copyright controversy erupted, he said that the widespread distribution of the photos on the Internet had cost him a lot of money by robbing his book of potential sales.

Self-portraits with animals, or images even snapped by animals themselves, continued to make social media waves in 2015. While amateur chemist Robert Cornelius took the

first selfie

in October 1839, the photos are considered to be a more modern phenomenon, given how easy it is now to take a photo with a cell phone. Cornelius, in contrast, had to pose for between three and 15 minutes to get his selfie, which was a silver-plated

daguerreotype

. Brothers Michael and Neil Fletcher did not have much time to take this photo with a bald eagle that they rescued from a trap near Windy Lake in Ontario, Canada. After freeing the eagle's talon from the trap, they took a moment to snap this selfie before freeing the bird.

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2015 saw the rise of the "quokka selfie."

Quokkas

are cat-sized Australian marsupials whose expressive faces and friendly ways have made them perfect subjects for photo close-ups. In fact, many Twitter and Instagram users report that, instead of running away from people and their cameras, quokkas seem to revel in the attention. Quokkas are endangered, however, so it is illegal in some locations, such as Rottnest Island, to handle the animals in any way. Fines of anywhere from $300-$3000 may be issued.

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An elephant at Koh Phangan, Thailand, grabbed the camera of traveler Christian Le Blanc, resulting in this memorable shot that was shared thousands of times in 2015. Le Blanc was feeding the elephant when the photo was made. Le Blanc told

BBC News

, "I quickly ran out of bananas and the elephant swiftly reached for my GoPro camera. Luckily it was on a continuous filming setting so the whole thing was captured."

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Another animal selfie that made the social media rounds in 2015 was this image. The organization

The Red Wire

described it as being "The World's First Lemur Selfie." The photo really shows off the lemur's bright orange eyes, which suggest that the mammal is either a black lemur or a hybrid between a black lemur and a Sclater's lemur.

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Some of the best animal selfies are taken by camera traps. Researchers use the camera traps to remotely and non-invasively monitor the populations of various species. The resulting photos are technically selfies, since the animal's body triggers the camera. In this case, the grizzly looks as though it is smiling and posing. There is reason for joy, given that the bears have made a remarkable comeback at Yellowstone National Park in recent years.

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In 2015, the largest published dataset of camera trap photos was cataloged and made available for the public to search. The project, called

Snapshot Serengeti

, consists of 1.2 million images, including this one of a vulture. Alexandra Swanson of the University of Oxford helped organize the photos. She told Discovery News that some animals damage the cameras, either intentionally or not. Most, however, "will lounge for hours in front of a camera, day or night," she said, suggesting that the majority are not bothered much, if at all, by the devices.

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The elusive

Saharan cheetah

was snapped this year by an infrared camera trap set at Ahaggar Cultural Park in Algeria. Saharan cheetahs are a critically endangered cheetah subspecies. Farid Belbachir of the Laboratoire d'Ecologie et Environnement, Université de Béjaïa, Algeria, who has been studying the animals, estimates that fewer than 250 remain. Referring to the camera trap project, Belbachir told Discovery News, "This is the first time we have been able to collect scientific data on the rare Saharan cheetah, as in the past we have had to rely on anecdotes and guesswork."

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Even a praying mantis had its moment in the selfie spotlight in 2015. According to a University of Kentucky

report

, praying mantises are among the insects that are widely kept as pets. As Steve Bender wrote for the magazine "

Southern Living

," a praying mantis "doesn't bark, shed, need shots or a litter box, and will look you straight in the eye with obvious affection."

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A series of images taken by a female Celebes crested macaque named "Naturo" date to 2011, but gained a whole new social media life in 2015. That is because in September,

PETA filed a lawsuit

claiming that Naturo himself holds the rights to the photos that he took using equipment belonging to photographer David John Slater. In a statement, PETA explained, "If this lawsuit succeeds, it will be the first time that a nonhuman animal is declared the owner of property (the copyright of the "monkey selfie"), rather than being declared a piece of property himself or herself. It will also be the first time that a right is extended to a nonhuman animal beyond just the mere basic necessities of food, shelter, water, and veterinary care. In our view, it is high time."

Macaque Holds Rights to Selfie, Lawsuit Claims

As 2015 comes to a close, lawyers representing Naruto continue to stress that the ongoing PETA lawsuit is a serious one. Just a few weeks ago, Naruto's lawyers with the firm Irell & Manella

wrote in a brief

: "While the circumstances presented here are novel, the issue is anything but trivial." They claimed that protection under the law "does not depend on the humanity of the author, but on the originality of the work itself." "There is no dispute here that Naruto took the photographs spontaneously and without human assistance. In every practical (and definitional) sense, he is the 'author' of the works."

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