Monkey Selfie Case Reaches Settlement -- But The Parties Want To Delete Ruling Saying Monkeys Can't Hold Copyright

from the this-is-bad dept

For many years now, we've been covering the sometimes odd/sometimes dopey case of the monkey selfie and the various disputes over who holds the copyright (the pretty clear answer: no one owns the copyright, because the law only applies to humans). David Slater, the photographer whose camera the monkey used, has always claimed that he holds the copyright (and has, in the past, tried to blame us at Techdirt for pointing out that the law disagrees). A few years back, PETA, the publicity-hungry animal rights group, hired big time lawyers at Irell & Manella to argue (1) the monkey holds the copyright, not Slater, (2) PETA somehow magically can stand in for the monkey in court -- and sued Slater over it. Slater and I disagree over whether he holds the copyright, but on this we actually do agree: the monkey most certainly does not hold the copyright.

The district court ruled correctly that works created by monkeys are in the public domain and that PETA had no case. PETA appealed. Last month, we wrote that the case was likely to settle, because both sides were highly motivated to get it out of court. On Slater's side, he had told some reporters that the legal fight has left him broke (which bizarrely lead to a bunch of people blaming me, which still makes no sense), while PETA desperately wanted to settle because the hearing in the case made it abundantly clear that the appeals court was not buying its argument. Indeed, it appears that the judges hearing the case could barely contain laughter at the bananas argument made by PETA's lawyers.

So it comes as little surprise that the parties have released a joint statement saying they've settled the case and asking the court to dismiss the appeal. Part of the agreement is that Slater says he'll donate 25% of any future proceeds from the monkey selfie pictures to organizations that protect the habitat of macaque monkeys in Indonesia, which seems like a good cause.

But... there is a pretty clear problem with the proposed settlement. Not only are they asking the court to dismiss the case due to the settlement, the parties have also agreed to ask the court to vacate the district court's ruling saying that animals cannot copyright works they create. Basically, PETA and its high-priced lawyers lost really badly on a fundamental issue of copyright... and now they want to erase that precedent so they or others can try again. PETA is arguing, incredibly, that if the original ruling stands, it will unfairly bind the monkey Naruto:

Here, the settlement is between PETA and Defendants. Accordingly, under Bonner Mall, PETA maintains that Naruto should not be “forced to acquiesce” to the district court’s judgment that he lacks standing under the Copyright Act where the appeal will be mooted by an agreement by PETA and PETA’s Next Friend status is contested and undecided. Rather, PETA maintains that it would be just and proper to vacate the judgment of the district court.

Wait. So PETA doesn't want Naruto -- the monkey that it claims to represent on no real basis, and who has absolutely no clue any of this is actually happening -- to be "forced to acquiesce" to the ruling? That's utter bullshit.

Of course, it's almost certainly not the real motivation here. The more likely reason is simply that PETA doesn't want that precedent on the books and there will likely be other cases in the very near future on other non-human created works. PETA's lawyers, Irell & Manella, may very well be trying to position themselves as the go-to lawyers on issues like who holds the copyright on AI-created works (answer again: no one), and having this ruling on the books, even at the district court level, would be inconvenient.

Hopefully the court will see through this and leave the ruling as is. Otherwise it seems likely that we'll be seeing a lot more of these kinds of cases. In the meantime, PETA also put a silly statement on its blog calling the case "groundbreaking." It was not groundbreaking. It was a stupid, nonsensical argument that was clearly not correct, and was basically laughed out of court. PETA says that this "sparked a massive international discussion about the need to extend fundamental rights to animals...." Except it did nothing of the sort.

Most of the press coverage you'll see about the case are just sort of laughing it off -- saying "oh that silly monkey selfie case has settled." But very few of them are reporting the request to vacate the lower court ruling. It's a bad idea and hopefully the court does not allow it to happen.

Filed Under: copyright, david slater, monkey selfie, precedent, public domain, settlement
Companies: irell & manella, peta

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Sep 2017 @ 7:40pm

    I would have thought the monkey being in Indonesia would be a sufficient enough reason to not have to be "forced to acquiesce" to an American court ruling. Geographical - and with it, legal - boundaries are indeed becoming blurred.

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