Naruto: Photography and Monkey Business

02/16/2016 / James P Quinn

David Slater is a British nature photographer who traveled to Indonesia in 2011. During a photo shoot in the jungle, he set his camera on a tripod. A Macaque monkey named, Naruto, walked up to the camera, pressed the shutter button, and took some pictures of himself – simian selfies. The pictures turned out to be charming and hilarious and they went viral. Mr. Slater registered the copyrights in the photos in England.
Naruto was incensed that Slater had stolen his copyright banana. To right this wrong, Naruto asked People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (“PETA”) to help him sue Mr. Slater for copyright infringement. Naruto's word processing skills are not on a par with his camera skills, otherwise he would have drafted the complaint in Naruto v. Slater by himself.
Instead of applying United States law, the Federal District Court in San Francisco apparently used the "law of the jungle" to decide that it had jurisdiction in situations where an animal is the named plaintiff in a lawsuit. Naruto demanded a jury trial and intended to populate the jury box so that it looked like Noah's Ark. Unfortunately, the case never made it to the jury because the judge decided that, as a matter of law (U.S. this time, not jungle law), Naruto did not own the copyrights in the photos. The Court reasoned that if Congress had wanted animals to own copyrights, they would have provided for that in the Copyright Act. So, if Congress acts on this issue with its usual diligence and wisdom, people can expect to start paying royalties to any creature with opposable thumbs.
There are two lessons here. First, if you don’t pay your dog the minimum wage to fetch your newspaper, you can expect to be sued by Rover, who now has access to Federal District Courts. Second, avoid using human photographers for family pictures because it is well settled that the photographers do, in fact, own the copyrights in those photos. It will be much cheaper to hire Naruto because, at least for now, he can’t charge people for copyright royalties.