Who Owns the Monkey’s Selfie?

What happens when a monkey takes a selfie? The field of intellectual property often has bizarre questions arise, but recently a picture went viral of a monkey who apparently took a photographer’s camera, and started taking pictures, including this awesome self portrait.

Apparently, British photographer David Slater had set up his camera in Indonesia to grab photos of crested black macaques. However, one of the monkeys found the camera when he stepped away, and took some photos, including the selfie above. When the photo went viral, Slater tried to take back control in a copyright dispute with Wikimedia Commons, who had posted the picture on Wikipedia.

Whether Slater owned the copyright seemed like nothing more than an interesting discussion among copyright lawyers, until the Copyright Office weighed in last month. In true fashion, it took them 1,200 pages to basically say that you can’t own a copyright to a monkey selfie.

“Materials produced solely by nature, by plants, or by animals are not copyrightable.” Humans need to create the work, or the Copyright Office will not register it. A less ridiculous example would be works created not by animals, but by machines. Music composed by an algorithm (www.computoser.com), or perhaps art based on fractal computations (http://www.deviantart.com/digitalart/fractals/) would not be copyrightable without additional human modifications.

It turns out the monkey was just the start of a much larger argument over the ownership of works produced by non-humans.