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Monkey Selfie Copyright Case

Monkey Loses Selfie Copyright Case — Naruto the Photogenic Macaque

Joshua Julien Brouard

Joshua Julien Brouard

15 November 20235 min read

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    There was undoubtedly no monkeying around by the 9th circuit when it comes to copyright claims. Despite the parties coming to settlement agreements, the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in late April 2018 that “Naruto [a crested macaque]—and, more broadly, animals other than humans—lack statutory standing to sue under the Copyright Act.” 

    The alleged monkey business

    In 2011, while in a reserve on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, wildlife photographer David Slater (“Slater”) left his camera unattended when Naruto, a seven-year-old crested macaque residing in the reserve, picked up the camera (I guess monkey see, monkey do). Naruto began taking pictures of himself.

    Thus, the famous monkey selfie was born. 

    These selfies were included in a wildlife photo book later published in 2014. Although the book identified Slater and his company, Slater and Wildlife Personalities, Ltd., as copyright holders of the photographs, there is commentary throughout the book indicating that it was Naruto who captured the selfies.

    It was then in 2015 that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (“PETA”) and one Dr. Antje Engelhardt filed a complaint against Slater, his company, and the publishers of the book for copyright infringement on behalf of Naruto based on Next Friend Standing. 

    The complaint alleges that the Doctor “has known, monitored, and studied Naruto since his birth” but doesn’t allege any history between the macaque and PETA. The District Court granted motions to dismiss, finding that Naruto had failed to establish statutory standing under the Copyright Act, and PETA and Dr. Engelhardt timely appealed. 

    Following the appeal, Dr. Engelhardt withdrew from the litigation, leaving PETA to speak on Naruto’s behalf as his “next friend.” 

    Despite coming to settlement agreements, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stated that it would still hear the case. 

    Ultimately, the court agreed with the lower court in finding that Naruto didn’t have statutory standing under the Copyright Act, and it found that PETA didn’t have standing to assert that it was Naruto’s “next friend.” 

    While the lower court punted the issue of Article III standing, the Court of Appeals did find that, based on precedent, the complaint included sufficient facts to establish adequate standing under Article III of the U.S. Constitution.

    Dolphins and Article III

    The Naruto court relied on a previous decision by that same court to determine whether Naruto had federal standing to bring the case. That case was Cetacean Cmty. v. Bush, which involved “the world’s whales, porpoises, and dolphins...” and their injuries from the Navy’s use of sonar systems. 

    The Cretacean court stated that “[t]o satisfy Article III, a plaintiff must show that (1) it has suffered an ‘injury in fact’ that is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical; (2) the injury is fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant; and (3) it is likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.” 

    That court ultimately stated that “[a]rticle III does not compel the conclusion that a statutorily authorized suit in the name of an animal is not a “case or controversy.’

    The court went so far as to find that it can “see no reason why Article III prevents Congress from authorizing a suit in the name of an animal, any more than it prevents suits brought in the name of artificial persons such as corporations, partnerships or trusts, and even ships, or of juridically incompetent persons such as infants, juveniles, and mental incompetents.”

    While also ultimately finding that the marine animals didn’t have statutory grounds to bring their suit, the court did not close the door completely on the possibility: “if Congress and the President intend[] to take the extraordinary step of authorizing animals as well as people and legal entities to sue, they could, and should, [do] so plainly.” 

    The Copyright Act and animal standing

    While finding that there was Article II standing, the Naruto court did ultimately find that the monkey had no standing under the Copyright Act. Based on the reasons of the Cetacean court as discussed above, because the Copyright Act “does not expressly authorize animals to file copyright infringement suits,” Naruto lacked the statutory standing to bring the suit. 

    Throughout the Copyright Act, Congress uses terms such as “children,” “grandchildren,” “legitimate,” “widow,” and “widower”. These terms “imply humanity and necessarily exclude animals that do not marry and do not have heirs entitled to property by law.”

    In support, the court cited a case that stated that “it is a fundamental canon of statutory construction that the words of a statute must be read in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.” 

    Legal boundaries and the future of non-human copyright claims

    In conclusion, the case of monkey Naruto highlights a complex intersection of copyright law, animal rights, and legal standing. The 9th Circuit Court’s ruling underscores a clear legislative boundary: while animals can be subjects of protection and concern, they aren’t, within the current legal framework and legal rights, recognized as holders of copyright.

    This decision not only reaffirms the human-centric perspective of statutory law but also leaves open the question of whether Congress might one day legislate in favor of non-human entities in such matters as intellectual property. Until such time, the saga of Naruto serves as a poignant reminder of the evolving discourse on the legal personhood of animals and the extent to which the law might adapt to the nuances of such unique and modern dilemmas.

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    Joshua J. Brouard brings a rich and varied background to his writing endeavors. With a bachelor of commerce degree and a major in law, he possesses an affinity for tackling business-related challenges. His first writing position at a startup proved instrumental in cultivating his robust business acumen, given his integral role in steering the company's expansion. Complementing this is his extensive track record of producing content across diverse domains for various digital marketing agencies.