In 2011, David Slater, a British nature photographer, found his popularity expanding beyond the world of animal lovers. While traveling on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi to study a group of macaques, Slater met a monkey who was particularly agile named Naruto.
Naruto managed to take his own selfie using Slater’s camera, flashing what looks like a toothy grin. The image quickly spread all over social media, but not just because it was cute.
As The Guardian reminds us, David Slater earned quite a lot of money from the viral photo. Two years after taking the famous snapshot, he decided he wanted to copyright the image, and asked the sites that had published it to take it down.
The sites refused, including Wikipedia, who claimed it wasn’t possible to copyright the image, because the photographer was in fact a monkey. The US Federal Copyright Office later ruled that animals could not hold the rights to intellectual property.
Who owns the image, the man or the monkey?
A bitter court battle ensued in an attempt to decide who was the legal owner of the photo. In 2015, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sued Slater on the macaque’s behalf, so the monkey would be recognized as the true owner of the photograph.
As for David Slater, he claims the monkey never would have been able to press the button on the camera by himself, and that he had to use a variety of strategies to get the animals to look into the lens.
“It wasn’t serendipitous monkey behavior,” he said. “It required a lot of knowledge on my behalf, a lot of perseverance, sweat and anguish, and all that stuff.”
On July 12, the court opened a new session to discuss the case. Since the photographer says he is having trouble making a living from his photography, the judges question the value of giving intellectual property rights to a monkey. As Judge N. Randy Smith said:
“There is no way to acquire or hold money. There is no loss as to reputation. There is not even any allegation that the copyright could have somehow benefited Naruto. What financial benefits apply to him? There’s nothing.”
While the situation is already pretty extraordinary, David Slater also thinks PETA is representing the wrong monkey, because the one in the photo is actually female.
Despite the difficulties he’s faced, David Slater hopes the photo will raise awareness and contribute to protecting the macaque by generating tourism and local interest in the species.