Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

A cropped version of a photograph taken by a black crested macaque on equipment belonging to nature photographer David Slater has created a copyright debate over who (or what) owns the rights to the photos. Wikimedia Foundation says because the image was taken by a monkey, Mr. Slater can not claim rights to the image. (David J Slater/Wikimedia)
A cropped version of a photograph taken by a black crested macaque on equipment belonging to nature photographer David Slater has created a copyright debate over who (or what) owns the rights to the photos. Wikimedia Foundation says because the image was taken by a monkey, Mr. Slater can not claim rights to the image. (David J Slater/Wikimedia)

Monkey selfie sparks copyright battle Add to ...

A British photographer is threatening legal action after Wikipedia refused to remove a photo of a monkey selfie from its website.

Award-winning nature photographer David Slater was travelling in Indonesia in 2011 photographing wildlife when a female black crested macaque monkey picked up one of his unattended cameras. While playing with the equipment, the monkey snapped hundreds of photos, included a widely circulated selfie of its grinning mug.

The original version of a photograph taken by a black crested macaque on equipment belonging to nature photographer David Slater.

When Wikipedia posted the photo online without asking Mr. Slater’s permission, he told them to remove it. The U.S.-based Wikimedia Foundation — which runs Wikipedia — is refusing, saying Mr. Slater does not own the rights to the shot because he did not take the photo, the monkey did. Wikimedia argues it is an act of nature and therefore is free for public use, stating on the image page: “This file is in the public domain, because as the work of a non-human animal it has no human author in whom copyright is vested.”

Mr. Slater argues the use of the photo is infringing on his ability to make a living and that, since he brought the equipment to Indonesia with the purpose of photographing wildlife, he played enough of a role in capturing the image to claim ownership.

“It’s all based on a technicality. I own the photo but because the monkey pressed the trigger and took the photo. They’re claiming the monkey owns the copyright,” Mr. Slater told The Daily Mail.

“There’s a lot more to copyright than who pushes the trigger on the camera. I set up the shot, I was behind all the components in taking that image.”

Wikimedia Foundation argues, 'because as the work of a non-human animal it has no human author in whom copyright is vested'

The dispute came to light this week after Wikimedia published its first-ever transparency report, which included details of multiple requests to have content removed from the site.

Copyright law varies from country to country, but generally is set up to protect the photographer by granting ownership to the individual who actually clicked the button to capture the shot. But ownership cannot be granted to a non-human according to U.S. law, so Wikimedia argues there is no claim to ownership.

Now Mr. Slater is threatening to sue the company, which would mean courts could have a final say in who claims ownership over animal selfies.

The internet’s seemingly insatiable appetite for both animals and selfies has spawned several training guides to teach pets how to snap their own self-portrait using smartphones and tablets. There’s even a new market for pet-selfie apps.

SnapCat, created by developers at Berlin-based startup EyeEm, is billed as the first cat-selfie app. The Android app displays a red dot that flickers around the screen. As kitty paws at the dot, it activates the phone’s camera and snaps a photo. Since its launch last summer, the app has inspired several copycat apps, like Cat Selfie for iPhones.

The result is an entirely new catalogue of blurry, furry portraits on social media which, if the Wikipedia case is any indication, fall into a grey area of copyright law.

Follow on Twitter: @KaleighRogers

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular