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  • Writer's pictureCassandra L. Wilkinson

Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, Own No Copyright

Taking a “Selfie” is old hat these days. I am usually the last person to engage in the latest trend, but after trading in my flip phone just last year and upgrading to a phone with a good camera, I have surrendered to the trend and taken photographs of myself out with the girls or at my favorite new restaurant. My guilt over my narcissistic behavior was eased a little when I saw the adorable selfies taken by an Indonesian macaque. I was delighted, but British photographer David Slater most likely was not; you see, I viewed this amazing photograph on Wikimedia, a not for profit organization which according to their website “encourages the growth, development and distribution of free, multilingual, educational content and to providing the full content of these wiki-based projects to the public free of charge.”
As I stated earlier, Mr. Slater is a photographer, a wildlife photographer to be exact. Usually a photographer’s pictures are considered to be authored by the photographer and protected by copyright law and therefor can be published for monetary gain. This may not be the case in this instance. The story behind the photographs is that while in Indonesia Mr. Slater was following a group of macaques. At some point, Mr. Slater took his hands off his camera and he says one of the females in the group snapped off a few selfies; these pictures have since gone viral. Mr. Slater claims that because it was his camera and he “set up” the photos, by simply being at the location with a camera, he is the author of the photo and has asked Wikimedia to remove it from their website. Wikimedia’s stance is that since the photo was taken by the macaque, it is not protected by copyright laws and they have refused to remove the photo from their website. By the way, if the photographs had been taken by a ghost or a deity, they also would not be protected by U.S. Copyright laws.
In the United States, to qualify for copyright protection, a work must meet three benchmarks:
1. It must be fixed in a tangible medium. A photograph fills this bill. 2. It must be original. Pretty sure there aren’t any other selfies by monkeys. 3. The work must have an “author.” Can a macaque be an author?

I don’t have the answers, but so far, the U.S. Copyright office has ruled that the pictures cannot be copyrighted. So, for now, pictures taken by monkeys are free from copyright laws and free for everyone to enjoy!
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