Photographer Claims Monkey Can't Own Rights to Famous ‘Selfie’

David Slater battles with Wikipedia over copyright.

August 6, 2014, 5:18 PM
PHOTO: One of the photos that the crested black macaque took with British photographer David Slater’s equipment is seen.
One of the photos that the crested black macaque took with British photographer David Slater’s equipment is seen.
David Slater/Caters

— -- It sounds like monkey business, but it’s no joke.

A British wildlife photographer is waging war against Wikipedia for refusing to remove a famous “selfie” that a crested black macaque took using his equipment in Indonesia in 2011. The site claims that because David Slater’s finger wasn’t on the camera's shutter button, he doesn’t own the copyright.

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But Slater says that’s ridiculous.

“Photography is my only source of income,” he told ABC News. “I only earned from [that image] for one year out of the four years it’s been out. And the money I got from it only covered the cost it took me to get there. Photographers like me depend on those lucky, brilliant shots.”

Slater had been with a group of monkeys in Sulawesi, Indonesia for three days on a photography trip when one of them grabbed the camera and took the infamous "selfie," among several other shots. Wikipedia offers the image through its Creative Commons section, which means anyone is free to take it, and so Slater isn't getting paid, he explained.

“It’s ruining my livelihood, I’m broke,” said Slater, who lives in Gloucestershire. “I can’t tell if people are using it for brochures, if someone is putting it on a T-shirt. My loss in earnings could amount to tens of thousands of British pounds.”

Wikipedia acknowledges Slater’s takedown request in the “transparency” section of its website, but says it disagrees. But it understands that a monkey can't own a copyright.

“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,” Wikipedia explained on its website.

Slater’s photos remain visible on the page for the Wikipedia entry for macaques, a kind of monkey.

Attorneys say the dispute highlights a legal "gray area."

"Even though the photo was taken with the photographer's camera, it was taken by a wild animal and in general, whoever takes the photo owns the copyright," Maryland attorney Bradley Shear said. "I think the photographer is going to have a very hard time proving he owns the rights to the image."

Attorney Tom Sadaka, a partner at NeJame Law in Florida, said he would argue Slater is the rightful owner under the Creative Commons law, because he is the person who extracted the photos from the camera and published them, thus making him the artist -- not the monkey.

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