Monkey Selfie Case May Settle: PETA Knows It'll Lose, And The Photographer Is Broke
from the so-settlement-makes-sense dept
It may finally be ending. The dumbest copyright lawsuit we’ve seen in a long time (and that’s saying a lot) about a silly topic. We’ve been covering the story of the monkey selfie from basically the very beginning (and often get mentioned in stories about it, as we’ll discuss below). But, the story that began as a weird quirk of explaining how copyright law works — and how many people don’t believe it works the way it does — got stupid in a hurry once PETA and the formerly respected law firm of Irell & Manella got involved. And, now, finally, the case may be ending in a settlement.
A settlement totally makes sense here, because the plaintiff knows it’s going to lose in embarrassing fashion if the case moves forward, and the defendant is broke, in part because of this case (though some people — including the photographer — appear to be partially blaming us*). If you somehow haven’t followed this story the very, very quick recap is that a photographer named David Slater went to Indonesia where he was taking photographs in a national park, and at some point at least one (and possibly more?) macaque monkeys played with his camera and took some photos with it, including some selfies, which were mildly amusing. As we noted in a long discussion on this, technically the photos are almost certainly in the public domain (read that post to learn why if you don’t believe it). David Slater disagrees with this and insists the copyright is his, and has had various representatives at times send totally bogus and severely confused threat letters. However, nearly all serious legal commentary has recognized that the works are in the public domain. That’s just how copyright law works, whether you like it or not.
Either way, there’s one thing that Slater and I agree on: the monkey doesn’t hold the copyright… and PETA (an organization that often seems to care more about publicity stunts than animals) two years ago kicked off a monumentally dumb lawsuit against Slater, claiming that the monkey held the copyright and that PETA represented the monkey. And, again, this can’t be stated often enough: PETA brought on a previously respected copyright law firm, Irell & Manella, to handle this case and they proceeded to make some really crazy arguments, including suggesting that every work must have a copyright — apparently writing the public domain right out of the law.
Either way, PETA lost badly in court, but still appealed. That appeal has not gone well. At a hearing last month, it appears that the judges could barely contain their laughter at just how stupid a lawsuit this really is. PETA knows it’s going to lose and lose badly — and thus has every incentive to settle this case before such a ruling is released.
As for Slater, well, he’s been telling reporters that he’s completely broke — so clearly he has incentive to just get the case over with as well. And, I feel for him. Being sued over a completely bogus claim totally sucks. I know that all too well. So it’s pretty sensible that all the parties in the lawsuit have told the court to hold off on ruling while they work out a settlement.
And, really, what a despicable case this was by PETA and Irell & Manella. Yes, I know that PETA’s whole schtick is to do ridiculous publicity stunts, but this one had real costs. It wasted a bunch of time in the courts, and was really damaging to David Slater, who didn’t deserve to be dragged into court by such an organization. One hopes that, at the very least, part of the settlement includes an apology.
* So, this is kind of a separate issue, but Slater occasionally points to Techdirt’s articles about why the photos are in the public domain as part of the problem — and the recent reporting on his claims of being broke have more or less repeated this. The first report we saw, in the Guardian, mentions us and Wikipedia as “refusing” to take the images down — which… leaves out a big part of the story (i.e., it was in the context of explaining why the work was in the public domain under copyright law). We actually had a few angry people contact us over the Guardian story not realizing the details.
But that was nothing compared to what happened when the Daily Mail, the UK’s worst newspaper, basically tried to rewrite the Guardian story and twisted our role even more:
His problems began when Californian-based blog Techdirt and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia (whose mission statement is ‘to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free licence or in the public domain’) muscled in.
“Muscled in?” Guys, all we did was write (accurately, I may add!) about the copyright issues when a monkey takes a selfie. That’s not “muscling in.” That’s journalism. The Daily Mail might want to try it some day.
They claimed the image was uncopyrightable because the monkey was the creator ? and so they uploaded the picture onto their websites, free for anyone to use. To Dave, this was an assault on his livelihood.
Understandably, he asked Techdirt and Wikipedia to stop using the pictures ? but they refused. Faced with little choice, Dave decided to sue for up to £18,000, saying: ‘There’s a lot more to copyright than who pushes the trigger.’
At least the Daily Mail mentions that we explained why the work is in the public domain, but they make it sound like we were the ones doing the initial distribution of the photo. That’s crazy. It was all over the internet. In fact, uh, we first read about the monkey in the Daily Fucking Mail. Seriously. Go look at the link in our first story. You want to know where we first got the photograph? The Daily Mail. Yet now the Daily Mail is blaming us for making the photo available? Are you fucking kidding me?
And, I have no idea what the hell they’re talking about saying that Slater sued us for £18,000. This is the first we’ve heard of it.
But, here’s the thing: after the Daily Mail article went online, we started getting quite a bit of hate mail, accusing us of bankrupting Slater. I feel bad for Slater, as his situation sounds bad. But we didn’t sue him. We didn’t take away his livelihood. We explained the law. That’s it. You might not like the law, but the law would have been the same whether or not we wrote about it. Slater wouldn’t have had the copyright either way. It’s fair to blame PETA for hurting Slater, because they sued him for no damn reason at all. But we just reported on the situation accurately — something it would be nice if the Daily Mail tried once in a while.