In 2011, British photographer David Slater spent three days with crested black macaques in the forests of Indonesia.
Wanting to get a close-up of a monkey’s face, Slater set up his camera on a tripod with a cable release, walked several feet away and hoped for the best.
When a curious macaque stepped up to the camera and began to play with it, Slater got the shot he was looking for: a monkey selfie.
But according to the U.S. Copyright Office, Slater doesn’t own the copyright to that photo because he didn’t actually take it.
In the first major revision to copyright law in more than two decades, the office ruled in 2014 that works created by animals belong in the public domain.
“The Office will not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants,” the office said. “Likewise, the Office cannot register a work purportedly created by divine or supernatural beings, although the Office may register a work where the application or the deposit copy(ies) state that the work was inspired by a divine spirit.”
The U.S. Copyright Office's 2014 ruling applies to any selfie taken by a non-human animal. (Photo: candiru/Flickr)
It was yet another setback for Slater, who has been battling publications to recognize his copyright for years. The long legal fight has drained his finances, he recently told the Guardian, and he reportedly couldn't afford airfare to San Francisco to attend a July 12 hearing at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The debate began when Wikimedia Commons — a database of images, videos and other media available for public use — added Slater's photo to its catalog.
Slater officially asked Wikimedia remove the image from its database in early 2012. The monkey selfie disappeared but was later added again by another user, and this time it remained. In a 2014 transparency report, the Wikimedia Foundation revealed that it denied Slater’s request to remove the photo.
“Monkeys don’t own copyrights,” the foundation’s Chief Communications Officer Katherine Maher told the Washington Post. “What we found is that U.S. copyright law says that works that originate from a non-human source can’t claim copyright.”
In 2015, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sued Slater on behalf of the macaque, which it argued is the photo's true owner. A judge ruled against PETA in 2016, noting that U.S. copyright law doesn't apply to non-humans. PETA appealed to the 9th Circuit Court, which heard arguments this week but hasn't ruled.
PETA identified the photographer as a 6-year-old male macaque named Naruto, but Slater and his publisher say that's the wrong monkey. "I know for a fact that [the monkey] is a female and it's the wrong age," he tells the Guardian. "I'm bewildered at the American court system. Surely it matters that the right monkey is suing me."
If there's a bright side for Slater in all this, it's that the photo — whoever owns it — has shed important light on a critically endangered species.
"These animals were on the way out and because of one photograph, it's hopefully going to create enough eco-tourism to make the locals realize that there's a good reason to keep these monkeys alive," he says. "The picture hopefully contributed to saving the species. That was the original intention all along."
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in August 2014.