People and animals have always had special relationships. State and federal laws are designed to provide protection to animals and to ensure their humane treatment. One court recently found that these relationships do not necessarily give animals the right to sue people in civil court.
Naruto “the Monkey” vs. David Slater
An unusual case began in 2011 when David Slater, a wildlife photographer, traveled to Sulawesi, Indonesia. He was on assignment, but there was a moment when he left his camera unattended. Naruto, a crested macaque, was nearby and seemed unable to resist temptation. Working quickly, he snapped several shots, including a series of selfies that is now known as the “Monkey Selfies.”
Slater was delighted when he saw the monkey’s work. In partnership with Wildlife Personalities, Ltd., the monkey selfies were published in a book. Slater and Wildlife Personalities are identified as copyright owners in the publication. However, text throughout the work identifies Naruto as the photographer.
The Copyright Law
Under U.S. copyright law, a photographer owns all rights to the images he captures unless he assigns those rights. Slater and Wildlife Personalities were turning a profit on the book, which they openly acknowledged included the photographic work of Naruto.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, filed a lawsuit in 2015 on Naruto’s behalf. Dr. Antje Engelhardt additionally acted as a plaintiff in an attempt to preserve Naruto’s rights. Engelhardt had spent a decade studying crested macaques, including Naruto, in Sulawesi, giving him a close relationship with the monkey. The plaintiffs alleged in the complaint that Slater and Wildlife Personalities were infringing Naruto’s copyrights.
Defendants responded by arguing that the plaintiffs had no standing and that no claim had been stated. The district court agreed with this motion, finding that plaintiffs had not established statutory standing. PETA and Dr. Engelhardt appealed.
The Argument for the Monkey
The Ninth Circuit first needed to decide whether or not PETA had standing to bring the case on Naruto’s behalf. PETA argued that they were acting as Naruto’s “next friend,” a common law concept that is typically used when one individual wants to act on behalf of another individual who is a minor, disabled or otherwise unable to direct an attorney as to their wishes. Generally, the party that acts as a “next friend” must have a well-established, relatively close relationship with the party for whom they are acting. In this instance, the court found against PETA because they could not establish a “significant relationship” with Naruto. Further, the court decreed that U.S. law does not permit an animal to be represented by a “next friend.” Dr. Engelhardt, who arguably did have a “significant relationship” with Naruto, had pulled out of the appeal by this time, which meant that no plaintiffs in the case had actual standing.
The court went even further, arguing that Congress would have to authorize the extension of “next friend” rights so that a person could bring a lawsuit on an animal’s behalf. Nonetheless, the Ninth Circuit acknowledged a case or controversy as described in the Constitution under Article III. The court felt an obligation to weigh whether or not an “incompetent party,” such as Naruto, was receiving adequate protection.
In the decision on the Article III question, the court ruled that the complaint adequately substantiated Naruto’s authorship of the photographs and demonstrated economic harm to the monkey as a result of the infringement on his copyrights. Accordingly, Naruto had standing under Article III.
Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit decided against Naruto because the Copyright Act does not give animals authority to file copyright infringement lawsuits. This lack of standing put an end to the lawsuit, but it sets an interesting precedent at the intersection between humans, animals and the law.
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