Judge Rules Monkey Can’t Own Copyright To Selfie – Lawsuit Filed By PETA Against Human Photographer Thrown Out

A federal judge has ruled that a monkey can’t own copyright to a selfie. The ruling pertained to a case that was filed by PETA on behalf of the macaque monkey who took a series of selfies which became very famous.

In a ruling that’s bound to have impact on the way digital content pertaining to animals is legally perceived, a federal judge in San Francisco has declined to accord a macaque monkey the right to his famous selfie. The images, taken by the monkey using an unattended camera in Indonesia in 2011, had become an overnight internet sensation.

However, the photos also raised the question of ownership of the digital content created by an animal, when the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a lawsuit last September on behalf of the monkey. The animal rights organization opined that if an animal took photos, the digital content should be legally owned by them. Accordingly, the organization appealed to a U.S. federal court in San Francisco to declare Naruto — a then 6-year-old male, free-living crested macaque — the author and owner of the internationally famous monkey selfie photographs that he took himself a few years ago, reported First Post.

Through the lawsuit, PETA sought a court order allowing the organization to represent the monkey. The organization maintained that Naruto is the sole “author and owner” of the series of photos and should be recognized as such, reported USA Today. PETA intended to manage any proceeds the image occurred for the benefit of the animal and its community. In simple words, the PETA wanted to secure copyrights of the monkey’s selfies. This would allow the organization to collect any and all royalties that the image managed to garner. To ensure its interests, PETA sued Slater and his San Francisco-based self-publishing company Blurb, which published a book called Wildlife Personalities. The book contains the “monkey selfie” photos.


According to the AP, the images, which quickly became viral on the internet, were taken in the Indonesian jungle in 2011 with a camera owned by British photographer David Slater. The unattended camera ended up in the hands of Naruto. The primate somehow managed to click numerous self-images, popularly known as selfies in great detail.

As there was no human involved in creation of the photos, many news outlets, and organizations like Wikimedia Foundation, concluded they could easily use the images in the public domain because Slater does not own the copyright, reported Fox News. Incidentally, the U.S. Trademark and Copyright office had agreed with Wikipedia in 2014 that a “photo taken by a monkey” cannot be copyrighted, reported Ars Technica.

While there’s no denying the fact that it was the monkey who took the photos, the judge didn’t side with PETA noting that there was no indication that the Copyright Act extends to animals. Slater had asked the federal court to dismiss the case on Wednesday.

“Monkey see, monkey sue is not good law, at least not in the Ninth Circuit.”

As for the argument that no human was involved in creation of the photos, Slater disagreed.

“It took three days of blood, sweat and tears to get the selfie in which I had to be accepted by the group of monkeys before they would allow me to come close enough to introduce them to my camera equipment.”

In his noting the judge mentioned the interpretation of the law.

“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.”

PETA was betting big on the lawsuit, hoping a favorable decision by the judge would be a major victory in recognizing animal rights. But the judge ruling that the monkey doesn’t own rights to a selfie clearly means a non-human can’t own copyrights to digital content, even if it is the sole creator.

[Image via Macaque monkey selfies in the public domain]