Animal Selfie Rights

By Veronica Chavez

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Being a wildlife photographer is a difficult job. The locations to which they must travel are often remote and sometimes dangerous; animal subjects unpredictably move in and out of frame; and with so many great nature photographers in the world, competition is fierce to say the least.

With many independent nature photographers often traveling solo, one problem most of them wouldn’t expect to encounter is someone else getting credit for the photos they take. In the case of British photographer David Slater, the credit of certain photos he brought back from a trip to Indonesia are being given to a monkey.

During his trip to the Tangkoko Nature Reserve in Indonesia, Slater had been trying to get the perfect shot of the macaques (a type of monkey) when his camera got snatched by one of the primates. The monkey who snatched Slater’s camera managed to locate the shutter button and proceeded to take several selfies. Slater posted the images on his website, clearly tickled by the incident, a sentiment many soon shared when one photo went viral.

What Slater was not so tickled by, however, was Wikipedia posting the picture and not giving the credit to him. When Slater issued a notice and takedown request for the image, Wikipedia denied it on the grounds that the copyright for the photograph belongs to the monkey.

While Wikipedia wasn’t exactly correct in saying that the copyright belongs to the monkey, the US Copyright Office wasn’t much help to Slater either. The office ruled that the picture could not be copyrighted by anyone, monkey or human, because animals cannot own copyright. Additionally, a human can only obtain the copyright privileges of a certain piece if he or she had a creative contribution to the work. For instance, if Slater trained the monkey how to press the shutter button when positioned at a certain angle.

After traveling thousands of miles to get close to the creatures as well as setting up the shot with the ideal lighting and location, Slater was enraged that Wikipedia refused to give him credit for the photograph.

Brad Wilson, another British wildlife photographer, spoke with BTR, pointing out that although Slater didn’t physically take the photo of the monkey, he did put photo editing work into it.

“He had clearly done some work with Photoshop or whatnot to get it to look like that,” says Wilson. According to Wilson, Slater should get more credit for the photo because the photographer had chosen a specific location, adjusted camera settings, and virtually contributed to all of the other aspects that go into getting a good shot. While Wilson did not specifically say that Slater should get the copyright for the image, Wilson does believe that Slater should at least get credit for the design and work done to the image after the initial “raw” stage.

When asked what things he might change about copyright laws for photographers, Wilson said that he wouldn’t change anything.

“I’ve had work of mine taken from my [web]site before without anyone giving notice to me,” shares Wilson. “I still got the credit for it, but that’s just kind of what you have to expect from this line of work. You put something out there and people are going to take it.”

While Wilson expresses sympathy for Slater’s situation (especially considering Slater claims upwards of $10,000 in lost income) the wildlife photographer believes that the situation at the end of the day was a fluke for which “laws do not have to be changed.”

On the the other aspect of the issue, Wilson agrees with the USCO that the monkey doesn’t deserve the copyright either. Wilson says he believes that there has been more unfairness in the past for art “produced” by animals. Specifically, he mentioned that art made by chimpanzees and elephants, in which the animals did way more than just locate a shutter button by accident, didn’t really get the credit they deserve.

Perhaps one day we will live in a world where animal artists and human artists can each own copyrights for the respective pieces and coexist. Currently, the law prevents animals from receiving credit, though it does protect them from having their art credited to humans.