Monkey owns rights to selfie? Wikimedia refuses photographer claim

A monkey grabs a camera and takes a selfie. The human owner of the camera claims copyright, but Wikimedia disagrees.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

The image as it currently sits on Wikimedia's pages. Wikimedia screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

If corporations are people, then animals surely have a case. Especially if they're monkeys. That may be the subconscious thought behind a curious tale emerging from the depths of Wikimedia.

In 2011, British photographer David Slater went to Indonesia to shoot some crested black macaques. The macaques, though, were either not enamored of his style of photograph or preferred simply to leap on the selfie craze.

As the Telegraph reported on Wednesday, the macaques grabbed Slate's camera and began to click away. Many of the pictures were entirely useless. One or two, though, were quite spectacular.

The images appeared in newspapers, magazines, websites, and televisions shows around the world, according to the Telegraph. Wikimedia, the US-based nonprofit behind Wikipedia, even featured an image on its Wikimedia Commons website, a database of more than 22 million images, videos, and audio files that are free for anyone to use.

Slater was not crested with joy as his shot spread far and wide, without compensation.

Slater became even more frustrated when, after complaining to Wikimedia, the organization told him he didn't own the copyright to the image. As Slater explained to the Telegraph: "If the monkey took it, it owns copyright, not me, that's their basic argument. What [Wikimedia doesn't] realize is that it needs a court to decide that."

My own understanding of the law is that animals cannot claim copyright, any more than they can hire a lawyer or buy a camera on Amazon.

Slater faces an estimated $16,850 (£10,000) in legal fees if he takes the issue to court, according to the Telegraph. The photographer told the publication that there is disagreement among Wikimedia's editors as to whether the image should be in the Commons database or not.

I have contacted Wikimedia to ask for its official point of view and will update, should I hear.

In its initial report on the matter, Wikimedia made this quite fascinating argument: "To claim copyright, the photographer would have had to make substantial contributions to the final image, and even then, they'd only have copyright for those alterations, not the underlying image. This means that there was no one on whom to bestow copyright, so the image falls into the public domain."

The idea of a photograph taken by no one with legal status is an interesting concept.

Currently, the photograph does sit on Wikimedia's pages. It is described as "Macaca nigra self-portrait (rotated and cropped).jpg." The information further reads: "Info created by a female Celebes crested macaque."

It's a truly arresting image. The monkey looks like something out of a Pixar movie brought to life. It has the somewhat startled expression of a distant, inebriated uncle who's stumbled uninvited into a wedding photograph.

One Wikimedia editor lauds it as having both the "LOL" and "WOW" factor.

Commentators on the Commons site seem divided.

A commenter called Colin offered this persuasive argument: "We really have no idea what processing the photographer did of the raw shots. We wouldn't have this photograph if it wasn't for that photographer. Morally, I think the photographer (the person who owned the camera and 'developed the film') has some rights to it, regardless of whether law has anything to say on the issue."

Colin also made the point that many nature photographs are taken because an animal crosses a light beam, without any human actually pressing the shutter.

There is no word on what the macaque feels about it all. Might she want some of any legal award that might come? Or did she just do it for all the fans out there?