Some monkey business is raising questions in philosophy of action, philosophy of language, legal theory, and animal ethics.
British photographer David Slater traveled to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, came across some macaque monkeys, and set up a camera with a tripod. One of the monkeys, Naruto, reportedly pressed the button on the camera, with the result being several photos of Naruto. Here’s one:
I think he needs to work on his squinching.
Anyway, Slater put this and other photos in a book, Wildlife Personalities. He now finds himself the target of a lawsuit from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who claim that since Naruto pressed the button on the camera that resulted in the photos, Naruto owns the copyright on the photos. Jeffrey Kerr, PETA’s general counsel, says: “The act grants copyright to authors of original works, with no limit on species… Copyright law is clear: It’s not the person who owns the camera, it’s the being who took the photograph.”
So that’s interesting, but check out the interview of Kerr at Motherboard. Here are some of the good parts:
How does an animal have standing in federal court on a copyright issue?
Well that’s what we’re arguing. It’s clear that the Copyright Act provides protection for authors of original works and it’s clear by Mr. Slater’s own admission that Naruto is the author of this work. And so we are representing Naruto as his Next Friend because he, like, other parties, can’t come to court on their own. But that is the issue that we believe Naruto should be given copyright protection in this photo in this case.
Does Naruto know about this lawsuit?
[pause] Um, the… fact here is that Naruto is unable to come into court himself and so we are standing as Next Friend. Your question is silly, frankly. The issue is as I’ve stated it.
Does Naruto know about his selfies?
[pause] I have the same response.
Naruto certainly knew at the time that he was engaged in intentional conduct that is obvious from Mr. Slater’s own description of the situation. And Naruto clearly engaged in the purposeful intentional conduct that resulted in the creation of the selfies.
If Naruto, as you say, intentionally aimed the camera at himself, but—and here, you haven’t quite answered my question—let’s say he doesn’t know the selfies exist—could it be that he intentionally made a selfie?
Yes, of course, the fact that someone engages in particular conduct that results in original work of art that is protectable under the copyright is sufficient. So, I have answered your question, with respect.
So you saying that you think Naruto knows these selfies exist, because he—
That’s not what I’m saying and you should not report that. What I am saying is, alleged in the lawsuit, that Naruto engaged in a series of purposeful, intentional actions. He is very bright. He was aware of the cause and effect relationship between pushing the shutter, his reflection in the camera—this is all admitted by Mr. Slater. The result of his conduct, the original works fixed in a tangible medium, resulted. And that is sufficient for copyright protection.
Can a photographer intentionally create a photo if they don’t know how a photo results from a camera?
Yes, of course.
Like if I took a machine and I didn’t know what it was for, and I fiddled with it, intentionally knowing that this is what someone was doing with it, but I didn’t know what the output was going to be because I had never seen the output, could it be that I intentionally created that output?
There are all kinds of different hypotheticals, but this case is about what we know and the facts that are laid out in the lawsuit, and that is what I’ve already said and will repeatedly say: which is that Naruto engaged in a series of intentional acts, and understood the cause and effect relationship of his actions, and his reflection in the camera… it is acknowledged by Mr. Slater numerous times. And the result of that conduct are the monkey selfie, which we believe he should be the author and copyright owner.
Kudos to Sarah Jeong and others at Motherboard for asking some good questions. How do you think Kerr did?