Can Monkeys Sue for Copyright Infringement?

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.

If you need any intellectual property guidance for you or your animal (tongue in cheek) request a free consultation below.

7 Daily ways you commit copyright infringement

A patent attorney is qualified to advise clients on a number of issues related to intellectual property. One of these is copyright law. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you already own several copyrights. In fact, you’ve been a copyright owner since you made your first finger painting. That’s because you took an idea and made it tangible.

In America copyrights are automatic. From the moment you scribble your thoughts down on paper, they are protected by copyright. It’s possible for a patent attorney to help you obtain a registration of your work with the U.S. Copyright Office, which offers you additional layers of protection.

It’s because copyrights are automatic that they are also so easy to infringe. Millions of people unwittingly commit copyright infringement every day. Most of these instances won’t result in any serious consequences, but others can have serious ramifications. Have you ever done any of these things?

1. Use a Quote from a Speech

Have you ever found a transcript of an inspirational speech and utilized a quote from it in a brochure or on your website? If so, this may be copyright infringement unless you had permission from the owner.

2. Copy a Photograph Online

Most websites don’t have safeguards that prevent people from copying their images. Once copied, those images can be used in a multitude of ways. Chances are good that most online photographs are copyrighted. It’s risky to copy and use someone else’s images.

3. Post a Video to YouTube

It’s fine to post your own videos online because you own the copyright. If you’ve ever posted someone else’s video without their permission, it’s a different story.

4. Use a Popular Song as a Soundtrack for Your Video

That hot new song might make the perfect soundtrack to your cat video, but think twice before using it. That song is copyrighted, and if you post a video that incorporates that song, it could mean trouble.

5. Translate and Distribute a Literary Work

You’ve found a great new poem by your favorite Spanish-language writer. You figure there’s no harm in translating it into English and posting it on your website, especially since you’ll give credit to the author. Think again before you post. Your translation is a derivative work of the original, and you’d need permission to use it.

6. Make a Copy of a Movie

Your favorite movie is finally out on DVD, and you can’t wait for your best friend to see it. The trouble is that he’s not local and money problems make it difficult for him to see movies. You think burning a copy of the movie on a blank DVD and sending it to him will solve the problem, but if you do that, you’ll be infringing a copyright.

7. Circumventing Software Protection

Whether it’s the latest version of an operating system or a hot new game, all software enjoys the protection of a copyright. If you find a way to circumvent the software’s security in order to obtain a free copy of it, then you are infringing that copyright.

Williams IP Law helps people and businesses protect their intellectual property. This not only includes matters related to patent law, but also to copyright protection. As a patent attorney Jeff Williams is well qualified to help you defend your own copyrights and make certain that you don’t run afoul of someone else’s intellectual property. Copyright law and patent law are both complicated subjects, but the practitioners at the Williams IP Law can help you make the right decisions to protect your interests.