To Thy Selfie Be True: One Small Click For A Monkey, One Giant Leap For Copyright?

“You got yourself framed on the wall. And people come by and they look at your face. And they say it’s the fairest of all,” Your Picture by Camera Obscura

Monkeys, apes, and chimpanzees have had a long history in front of the camera on the silver screen and television. What would Tarzan have been without Cheeta? Reagan without Bonzo? Clint without Clyde? Charlton without his planet of them? And when it comes to TV, who can forget Peggy Cass, Jack Weston and their trio of adopted chimps on the 1961-62 series “The Hathaways?” Well, almost everyone. (Even I had a hard time remembering the premise of that show, which aired when I was 5. But it goes to show you–casting a non-human hominid in even a mediocre sitcom leaves a lasting impression.)

But a monkey behind the camera? Calling the shots, so to speak? Hard to imagine, despite the “infinite monkey theorem that posits “Give a thousand monkeys typewriters and infinite time and they will almost surely type Shakespeare’s plays.” But it’s actually happened, and it’s caused a copyright tussle that could be dubbed “Rumble in The Jungle II.”

Here’s the story: British wildlife photographer David Slater set off for a jungle shoot in Indonesia with thousands of dollars of equipment in tow. After setting up his gear, Slater walked away from his tripodded camera. As if on cue, a crested black macaque entered stage left and began snapping away. As described by Jay Caspian Kang in The New Yorker, “the result was hundreds of macaque selfies.” Most of the haphazard snaps were blurred. But the infinite monkey theorem prevailed, and one particularly affecting image–a headshot of a macaque sporting a goofy grin–went viral, to the delight of millions of viewers around the world looking for a respite from the grim news cycle and the fiasco of Bruce Jenner’s new hairstyle (which one pundit likened to Donald Trump’s morning pre-comb over mane.)

Everyone had a good laugh at the notion of a monkey selfie and the strangely compelling image it produced. Everyone, that is, except Slater.

He demanded that Wikimedia, which had posted to chimparrazzi’s handiwork, take down the offending snapshot, arguing that he, not, the monkey, owned the copyright. To Slater, a monkey pressing the shutter on cameras Slater lugged into the jungle is no different from an assistant pressing the button after Slater set everything up. But here, Slater had not held the camera or even composed the shot. The intermeddling monkey did.

Still, Slater has reason to be miffed. His plane ticket set him back a small fortune, not to mention the cost of his gear. Without his presence, the macaque would have been foraging for berries, not aping Richard Avedon. Yet as the images produced from his camera sweep the planet, Slater hasn’t earned a dime. In fact, this episode is costing him in legal fees to vindicate his position.

There’s one big problem for Slater, however. The U.S. copyright office backs the monkey! In a recent draft policy statement, the U.S. Copyright Office has clarified that it will not register works produced by plants, animals or “divine or supernatural beings.” Specifically tackling the flap between Slater and his meddlesome sidekick, the Copyright Office noted that it will refuse to register a claim if a human being did not create the work, and listed “a photograph taken by a monkey” and “a mural painted by an elephant” as examples of works that will not receive registration. And that policy jibes with the basic copyright principle that “she who presses the shutter owns the copyright.”

So it seems that, as so often has been captured on film for the movies and tv, a monkey and his hijinks have gotten the best of yet another homo sapien sap, once again proving the wisdom behind W.C. Field’s second most famous line “never work with children or animals.”

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
Charles Darwin

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