Copyright Law Update: The "Monkey Selfie" Case Ends in the 9th Circuit

In order to understand the impact of the 9th Circuit's recent ruling in Naruto v. Slater, we have to quickly survey the history of the case.  David Slater is a photographer from the UK.  In 2011, Slater was in Indonesian jungle photographing a group of macaques.  Slater sets up a camera in a clearing to work without his presence.  

Subsequently, a macaque approaches the camera, starts to handle the camera, and in so doing presses the shutter button down, resulting in a series of images which immediately became known as the "monkey selfies".  

Slater takes those images, includes them in a book of his collected work, and begins to sell the book independently. 

That's when PETA alleged that Slater was infringing on - wait for it - the monkey's copyright in the "monkey selfie" photographs included in Slater's published collection. 

Not surprisingly, PETA filed suit against Slater and the bookseller.   The resulting litigation ended up nearly bankrupting Slater, you can read more on that here

In part as a result of the costs of the litigation, Slater was forced to settle that case after oral arguments on the appeal before the 9th Circuit.  However, the issue of whether or not an animal has legal standing to sue under the Copyright Act was still alive.   The result that the 9th Circuit reached is the correct result.  However, there is  significant irony in that the 9th Circuit's ruling effectively would have prevented the litigation from going forward to begin with.  

Moral of the story: animals do not have legal standing to sue under the Copyright Act.  This is so self evident that one can hardly believe it takes a federal court ruling to establish the idea.  One thing that is remarkable in the degree to which the Court's opinion attacks PETA's modus operandi.  For example, footnote 3 on Page 7-8 of the Court's opinion is pretty astonishing: 

We feel compelled to note that PETA’s deficiencies in this regardgo far beyond its failure to plead a significant relationship with Naruto.Indeed, if any such relationship exists, PETA appears to have failed to liveup to the title of “friend.” After seeing the proverbial writing on the wallat oral argument, PETA and Appellees filed a motion asking this court todismiss Naruto’s appeal and to vacate the district court’s adverse judgment, representing that PETA’s claims against Slater had been settled.It remains unclear what claims PETA purported to be “settling,” since the court was under the impression this lawsuit was about Naruto’s claims and per PETA’s motion, Naruto was “not a party to the settlement,” nor were Naruto’s claims settled therein. Nevertheless, PETA apparently obtained something from the settlement with Slater, although not anything that would necessarily go to Naruto: As “part of the arrangement,” Slater agreed to pay a quarter of his earnings from the monkey selfie book “to charities that protect the habitat of Naruto and other crested macaques in Indonesia.” See Settlement Reached: ‘Monkey Selfie’ Case Broke NewGround For Animal Rights, PETA, selfie-case-broke-new-ground-animal-rights/ (last visited Apr. 5, 2018). But now, in the wake of PETA’s proposed dismissal, Naruto is left without an advocate, his supposed “friend” having abandoned Naruto’s substantive claims in what appears to be an effort to prevent the publication of a decision adverse to PETA’s institutional interests. Were he capable of recognizing this abandonment, we wonder whether Naruto might initiate an action for breach of confidential relationship against his (former) next friend, PETA, for its failure to pursue his interests before its own. Puzzlingly, while representing to the world that “animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way".

The Court's opinion is embedded below: