It all started with a simple photograph. In 2011, a macaque monkey named Naruto (allegedly) used photographer David Slater's camera to snap a selfie. It's unlikely that the monkey knew what it was doing — especially since what it was doing was starting a legal battle that would rage for more than five years. It almost sounds like the setup of a bad joke (or a great sitcom), but Naruto the monkey is going to court, and David Slater's humanity might not be enough to save his intellectual property rights.

When A Funky Monkey Needs A Legal Eagle

It's a good thing that monkeys are good at climbing, because Naruto's got an uphill legal battle ahead. Not that he cares too much about it. Yes, as you may have guessed, Naruto was not the one who initiated this lawsuit. Instead, PETA lawyers took up his cause. In the words of the organization's general counsel, "There is nothing in the Copyright Act limiting ownership based on species, and PETA is asking for an interpretation of the act that acknowledges today's scientific consensus that macaque monkeys can create an original work."

What's on the line isn't just Naruto's ability to print T-shirts in his likeness. PETA is arguing for the right to make money with the images and spend that money to protect Naruto's habitat on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Unfortunately for Naruto, the law doesn't recognize him as a person. Until it does, it's legally impossible for him to be granted ownership. But that doesn't mean that his human adversary has the case all wrapped up, either.

Was It Man? Or Beast?

This isn't the first time David Slater has gotten involved in a legal battle over these photos. In 2014, he was the one bringing the case to court. See, he was trying to sell a book of animals with big personalities, and Naruto is a big personality. But those photos that Naruto took were ruled public domain — after all, how could Slater be responsible for a shot that a monkey took? He argues that he set up the shot, and moreover, that he's lost the equivalent of £10,000 since he can't sell the photos.

The law's not necessarily on his side. According to intellectual property expert Charles Swan, "The legal situation as far as European copyright is concerned is that a photograph has to be the author's own intellectual creation. If a monkey takes a picture, that can be considered an author's intellectual creation. The fact that [Slater] owns the camera has nothing to do with it." In other words, it doesn't belong to anyone. Feel free to make Naruto into a public domain Halloween costume this year.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas July 19, 2017

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