Monkey Business: Can A Monkey License Its Copyrights To A News Agency?

from the i-don't-think-so... dept

A year and a half ago, we wrote about a movie that was entirely filmed by chimpanzees, and wondered about who held the copyright on it. Technically, in most cases, whoever makes the actual work gets the copyright. That is, if you hand your camera to a stranger to take your photo, technically that stranger holds the copyright on the photo, though no one ever enforces this. There were some different theories made in the comments about who actually holds the copyrights, but no clear agreement. Of course, the whole discussion was purely theoretical, because it wasn't like anyone was concerned about the copyright.

However, now we have a similar, but different, story where I think it's a very valid question. Mr. LemurBoy points us to a story involving an award winning nature photographer, David Slater, who was in Indonesia in a national park. At some point, he left the camera unattended, and apparently a macaque monkey wandered over and took this hilarious self-portrait:
Now that's the best photo of the bunch, and appears to have no copyright notice on it (though that doesn't mean it's not covered by copyright), but two of the other photos, which the article also claims were taken by the monkeys, do have copyright notices, with the claim being that the copyright is held by the Caters News Agency.

So here's the legal question: how did the copyright get assigned to Caters? I can't see how there's been a legal transfer. The monkeys were unlikely to have sold or licensed the work. I'm assuming that it's likely that the photographer, Slater, probably submitted the photos to the agency, and from a common sense view of things, that would make perfect sense. But from a letter-of-the-law view of things, Slater almost certainly does not hold the copyrights on those images, and has no legal right to then sell, license or assign them to Caters.

Filed Under: copyright, monkeys

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  1. icon
    GeneralEmergency (profile), 7 Jul 2011 @ 6:19pm


    In the scenario cited and in the case of monkeys, the camera has not been stolen. It is still within the immediate proximity of the owner. Once the shutter is clicked, the camera is immediately returned. Since there is no actionable criminal action there are no "criminals" here.

    Your citation of the OJ case is interesting but irrelevant because the "If I Did It" Copyright and the profits were seized to partially satisfy the outstanding (and famous) wrongful death civil judgment obtained by Fred Goldman, not as part of any statutory offense or violation of Copyright law.

    If your neighbor grabs your camera and snaps that one in million photograph and hands you back the camera, you do NOT own the copyright to that photo and have no rational claim to it and therefore your possession of the photo is practically worthless. But remember, while he possesses copyright, he lacks possession of the photo (which is why he is -NOT- a criminal) so his copyright is practically worthless as well.

    Best make a deal with your neighbor to split the profits and draw up a contract.

    But in the Monkey Photo case, the Monkey cannot enter into a contract for two obvious reasons:
    1) He is a Monkey, not a person.
    2) As Macaques are usually dead by 18, he is likely underage.

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