An incident of “monkeying around” has created copyright headaches for wildlife photographer David Slater, who has alleged copyright infringement over photographs taken in Indonesia in 2011.
It’s a thornier problem than it looks. Slater spent three days in the wilderness shadowing a group of crested black macaques, a critically endangered species of monkey in Sulawesi. After reaching a certain level of comfort on both sides, Slater set up his camera on a tripod and left it unattended so the monkeys could take their own shots.
The resulting photos, including a selfie by a particularly intrepid female, went viral on the internet, eventually ending up on Wikimedia, an online library of public domain photos.
However, Slater insists the photo copyrights belong to him. “You could look at it like this: The monkey was my assistant,” he says. “And therefore I was the artist behind the image and I had my assistant press the button.”
Wikimedia has refused to remove the photos, standing by their assessment that they are in the public domain, since Slater himself did not take them. “Monkeys don’t own copyrights,” says Wikimedia Foundation’s Chief Communications Officer Katherine Maher. “What we found is that U.S. copyright law says that works that originate from a non-human source can’t claim copyright.” According to Maher, Slater would have had to make significant changes beyond cropping and other small adjustments to claim the photos as his own.
Slater maintains that the decision has cost him thousands of dollars in royalties. Within the first year of taking the image, he earned £2,000 ($3,365) in sales. Since the photos went up on Wikimedia, however, there has been no interest in buying them. Slater estimates he has lost out on £10,000 in revenue.
The selfie has been featured in news publications around the world, including The Guardian, The Telegraph, Huffington Post, and the blog Techdirt, to whom Slater has also sent a removal request.