If A Video Is Filmed By Chimps… Who Owns The Copyright?

from the for-you-lawyers dept

Here’s a fun one for you lawyers out there. Richard points us to a story about a movie made entirely by chimpanzees who were given cameras, which is now being broadcast on the BBC. However, Richard raises a good question: who owns the copyright on the film. Generally speaking (and, yes, there are some exceptions), whoever creates the actual work gets the copyright, and it seems clear that the chimps specifically learned to pay attention to the viewfinder on the camera. Of course, with films and such, there may be more contractual issues set up, but I doubt the chimps signed anything. Perhaps it’s a work-for-hire situation, even if the chimps weren’t paid? Though, according to some, if the chimps aren’t paid, they won’t have incentive to make any new movies…

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Comments on “If A Video Is Filmed By Chimps… Who Owns The Copyright?”

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95 Comments
ChurchHatesTucker (profile) says:

Re: Hmm...

Trick is, the chimps (unlike a camera stand) are exhibiting some creative decision making and fixing its form. Maybe they have no legal standing to exercise their copyright, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anybody else gets to claim it.

I’m sure that the owners will posit that it’s a ‘work for hire’ (and claim that the normal care and feeding are their ‘wages’) but I rather like the idea that a chimp’s work belongs to public domain. At least until they get to vote!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Hmm...

What if it’s a wild chimp? And the camera is shaped like a banana? And the banana camera was dropped in the forest by another wild animal? And the video feed was transmitted to a computer that had no owner and then uploaded to YouTube?

Well, the average quality of youtube videos would go up.

Matt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Hmm...

I don’t think so. I don’t think a chimp can be an “author” at all, at least under US copyright law. Initial ownership vests in the author or authors of a work. 17 USC 201(a).

I think it is irrelevant whether or not the chimp can have IP rights. The question is only whether the chimp is an “author”. I am not aware of authority defining “author” (except in the “works made for hire” jurisprudence, which I take to be irrelevant,) but I’d wager a court would hold that a chimp isn’t one.

IP Lawyer says:

Re: Re: Corporations

I don’t know where you find a citation that says “animals cannot own copyrights” because this has never been litigated. I.e., this is such an obvious point of law that no one has ever bothered to litigate it. It is like asking a mathematician to cite to something that says “2+2=4.”

One possible exception is granting ownership of a copyright, such as in a will or other instrument, to a trust that is managed for the sake of an animal. However, that is an entirely different beast.

Ryan says:

Re: Corporations

If there is no owner or he/she cannot be determined? Maybe it’s a stray chimp or one filming in the wild? Doesn’t the chimp have to be gainfully employed for it to be a “work for hire”? And then obviously animals do have legal rights, or there would be no cruelty to animals charges. But if they are akin to children, then I know in some cases children retain copyright.

Matt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Corporations

Well… no. Despite PETA’s propaganda, animals do not have recognized rights (except in the loose sense that any responsibility in a person creates a correspondent and correlative right in another – but even that is probably a stretch, because the animals do not have the right to enforce the responsibility). Instead, there is a prohibition on certain conduct against animals. To say that implies a right is a bit like saying your house has a right to avoid most nocturnal intrusions.

Anyhow, for better or worse the animals here are likely instrumentalities of the producer, who retains the rights.

mict1111 (profile) says:

chimps make movies in hollywood all the time....

And the owner of the copyright is the one who gave them the camera to make it with. The producers who then sell it to the studios.
Chimps never own the copyright, regardless of whether the ‘chimp’ in question is literal or figurative.

But, if the chimp wonders into the woods, finds a camera, gathers the crew and cast and then makes the movie and walks away…I suppose it would be up for grabs. Or at least until that chimp logged onto their YouTube account, saw the video being uploaded and sued for a piece of the, er, well…banana pie!

Crosbie Fitch (profile) says:

Chimps aren't so stupid

Unlike humans, chimps aren’t so stupid as to create laws that prevent them copying each other.

It wasn’t until quite late in mankind’s cultural and technological development (achieved through a process of continuous improvement aka copying) at the dawn of the industrial revolution, that some unprincipled legislators were given enough backhanders that they created the monopolies of copyright and patent (on the galling pretext they would advance mankind’s progress).

And now all we can do is engage in this depressing doublespeak that copyright is of course most worthy, but in an inexhaustible number of cases, a complete fucking joke.

It is copyright that is making monkeys out of us all.

Abolish it.

Anonymous Coward says:

“but I doubt the chimps signed anything.”

I don’t know, perhaps the chimps were given names and they were taught how to sign their names and were commanded to sign their names on the dotted line if they were given a cookie. It’s possible. The question is, did the chimps understand what they were signing or that they were signing a contract or were they just repeating a procedure that they were trained to repeat.

Steve says:

Well they’ve taught elephants to paint landscapes and whatnot, and the trainers own the rights to the finished products. I figure since animals don’t really have the ability to reason and create abstract thought, they’re actions can be considered either completely random or programmed in some way. If an animal is thought of as a software program that creates art explicitly through human training (ie programming) then the trainers (ie programmers) would receive most of the credit, followed by a smaller proportion of credit going to anyone who had a hand in the creative works.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

…the trainers own the rights to the finished products

Err, just exactly which “rights” are you referring to?

they’re actions can be considered either completely random or programmed in some way.

In which case there is no “creative element” and the work is not eligible for copyright under US law. So again I ask, to which “rights” are you referring?

If an animal is thought of as a software program that creates art explicitly through human training (ie programming) then the trainers (ie programmers) would receive most of the credit, followed by a smaller proportion of credit going to anyone who had a hand in the creative works.

OK, now I see that you’re just making stuff up. Copyright does not work on percentages like that.

Steve says:

Well they’ve taught elephants to paint landscapes and whatnot, and the trainers own the rights to the finished products. I figure since animals don’t really have the ability to reason and create abstract thought, they’re actions can be considered either completely random or programmed in some way. If an animal is thought of as a software program that creates art explicitly through human training (ie programming) then the trainers (ie programmers) would receive most of the credit, followed by a smaller proportion of credit going to anyone who had a hand in the creative works.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Who own the chimps?

Ah, so if I own a camera, then I own the copyright on anything made with it, huh?

Who gave permission for them to do this sort of thing?

And if I give someone permission to photograph something, then I own the copyright on the resulting work too, eh?

It’s not hard to figure out who owns the copyright, unless you are trying to be obtuse.

With the legal theories you’ve presented so far, you seem to be trying to be “an idiot”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The key question is “who owns the chimps?”.

Who says? That actually doesn’t seem to matter at all without a legal basis.

If I _own_ someone, all things that he/she/it produce are mine. Slaves do not own the product. The master does.

If you’d care to point the part part of copyright law that assigns copyright to a slave’s owner, I’d like to read it.

Crosbie Fitch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Copyright is so called because it represents the suspension of the individual’s natural right to copy – in order to grant this as a transferable privilege attached to ‘original’ works – for the ulterior benefit of the press (monopoly) and the state (against sedition).

So actually, both monkeys and humans are born with the natural right to copy each other. It’s just that we’re stupid enough to allow ourselves to be brainwashed into believing that copying each other is not only morally wrong but detrimental to mankind’s progress.

A Dan (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You’re acting as if copyright is based on common sense. It doesn’t work that way.

I can’t see how you would believe the rights would go to anyone other than the animal (or nobody) if:
1. It has free will in pointing the camera, and intentionally points it at things.
2. It hasn’t deliberately signed over the rights to its creation.

The issue that we’re running into is that chimps aren’t total idiots. They’re not robots and they’re not obedient dogs; they were deliberately pointing the camera at things.

Lisae Boucher (profile) says:

Let’s think… The chimps were given a camera to film things. They were trained even for this purpose. And in return for sweets and praises, they started to do their work. So it’s work-for-hire which included additional education in return for the work done by the chimps. So the chimps don’t own it.

It was made by the BCC but the BCC isn’t a private company. It’s a government-owned institution and technically, everything they produce belongs to the British people. So, the British people own the copyrights and apparently, they’re free to share it with other British people.

Richard (profile) says:

The Answer

As the original story submitter I’ve had a little more time to think about this and I think I’ve got the answer.

TAM is wrong – it isn’t like strapping a camera on your dog – because the trainers are deliberately making every effort NOT to influence the film contents.

When you look at what the trainers were trying to do (and ignore the amusing but legally dubious idea that the chimps could own the copyright themselves) it is clear that the raw films are experimental data and therefore fall immediately into the public domain.

The edited films are copyright the editor (and of course the music has its own copyright) – similar to a table of results in an academic journal – where the numbers are PD but the layout isn’t.

a-dub (profile) says:

I believe TAM is correct. It certainly is just like strapping a camera on your dog. As many have stated here, the chimps are the property of the zoo just like a dog is the property of its owner. There is no creative difference between a chimp holding a camera with its hands and a dog copping a squat in the back yard with a camera strapped to its back. Either way, the animals are property and property cannot hold a copyright.

As far as minors are concerned…taken from copyright.gov

Can a minor claim copyright?
Minors may claim copyright, and the Copyright Office issues registrations to minors, but state laws may regulate the business dealings involving copyrights owned by minors. For information on relevant state laws, consult an attorney.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re:

There is no creative difference between a chimp holding a camera with its hands and a dog copping a squat in the back yard with a camera strapped to its back.

The difference is in the intent of the people who organised this experiment.

If you strap a camera on an animal as an experiment in avante gard art then you own a copyright. If you do it as part of an experiment in animal behaviour then it is not a creative work at all but lab results – and therefore part of the public domain.

Its exactly the same as Jackson Pollock’s random paint splashings – which are art because he says so – as opposed to the random splashings of a paint manufacturer researching the properties of paint – which are public domain.

hegemon13 says:

Whoever owns the chimps

This is a pretty silly and pointless article. The same person owns it who would own a movie shot by a human cameraman. The copyright for a movie is almost never owned by the cameraman. It’s owned by the director or the producer, or sometimes both. Chimps don’t have to sign contracts, and you know it. It’s this kind of silly, poorly thought-out article that gives fuel to the Anti-Mikes of the world.

Mike – just stick to the legitimate issues and don’t risk soiling your integrity with articles like this.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Legality

The purpose of the activity is “providing new information on how chimps like to see the world” that makes the output lab data and therefore public domain irrespective ofany other issues.

If the exact same thing were done as an artistic exercise then the products would be copyright – but since it’s science a different set of rules applies.

Matt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Legality

This assumes, first, that it is the _scientist’s_ judgment as to what is happening that determines whether the work is in the public domain. Substitute humans for chimps and that certainly would not be the case: if a lab gave a bunch of people cameras and told them to shoot footage for a day, the lab might think the footage is raw experimental data but the movie-makers would still be entitled to a copyright in it (to them, it was a creative work). One of many reasons it is wise to have a release and pre-assignment of rights as part of your participation agreement.

The difference is, here the individuals shooting footage are likely not “authors” under the copyright law. So no copyright vested in them upon creation. The “authors” are likely the researchers.

Incidentally, I do not think that intention matters. The reason raw experimental data passes into the public domain is not because the researcher has no creative intent, it is because the data has no creative content (and, thus, is not an appropriate subject matter for copyright). Certainly the creative and original interpretation of the data is subject to copyright. Here (arguably), the raw experimental data is a list of things at which chimps pointed cameras, not the recording of what they saw when they did so.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Legality

The point is that the intent CAN alter the nature of what is done. The Corel case turned to some extent on the admitted intent of the photographer NOT to add anything.

If the chimps were replaced by humans then consent forms would have to be signed – which would clarify the copyright status.

The “authors” may be the researchers – but as a work of science their activity does not fall into the categories that are protected by copyright – in a way it isn’t even public domain – (that would imply that copyright was possible) It’s simply “not applicable”.

Anonymous Coward says:

If the chimps were unpaid, the use of these chimps for this project would count as “slave labor”. Human rights against slavery don’t extend to animals, so there is no legal precedent against it. Harkening back to when slavery was legal, any thing that a slave produced was the property of the slave owner, so it would seem that the owner of the chimps is legally entitled to it.

If they were being compensated in any other way, such as getting lots of nice things to eat in exchange for their participation, then it could qualify as a work for hire, and would still would not be able to claim ownership of the work.

Either way, copyright does not get assigned to the chimpanzees.

Anonymous Coward says:

Does copyright only apply to humans?

This brings up an interesting point. Are non-humans protected by copyright? Hypothetically, if an artificially-engineered human or a software/hardware-based artificial intelligence were to create a work of art by himself/herself/itself, would they have the rights to their work, or would their creators/parents/owners?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Does copyright only apply to humans?

This brings up an interesting point. Are non-humans protected by copyright? Hypothetically, if an artificially-engineered human or a software/hardware-based artificial intelligence were to create a work of art by himself/herself/itself, would they have the rights to their work, or would their creators/parents/owners?

Based on DNA and cell count due to microbial colonization, most so-called “humans” are mostly non-human. So do they still have rights to copyright? Don’t forget that these microbes can also influence thought and thus the creative process.

Japz Lapeno says:

What use is copyright to a chimp? That would be a better question. Because so far as I can tell, copyright is a concept of human greed. “You can’t use what I made without MY permission because I made it.” And from a legal standpoint, the chimps have no right to ownership to begin with. So from there, you’d go to the human or humans most directly involved with the filming, which would be whoever was handling the monkeys. And after that, it depends on who signed what. But I assume that since it is airing on BBC, all that would have been settled. So if anyone can track down the lawyers that were involved with all that, we can get an answer to this question and put an end to this foolishly speculative debate.

Eric Skye says:

Monkeys

Working for free?! This is an outrage. I’m starting a labor union, the Monkey Movie-Maker’s of America, and I’m gonna put George Bush in charge. Half of these monkeys can’t even afford to purchase bananas for their family, let alone cars or houses. If monkeys are ever going to be equal, we’re going to need to compensate them for their blood, sweat, and tears. This is so oppressive, free the monkeys!

the SASS Man (user link) says:

Copyright

This subject is a tricky one, but at the heart of it s the concept of OWNERSHIP. If these are captive monkeys, then I suggest that the “Owner” of the copy s he “Owner” of the monkeys that made it. If these were wild monkeys, then the owner is the government of whatever country in which the monkeys reside, pure and simple.

Now…in America, the Government CANNOT own Copy, that fact is spelled out explicitly under US Copyright Law. Any monkeys residing any form of government-controlled zoo or shelter, including state and manciple zoos, would AUTOMATICALLY enter into the Public Domain, no questions asked, and no argument possible.

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