CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again


PETA sues on behalf of monkey who took selfie

The do-gooders declare the photographer who profits from the selfie a do-baddie. Astonishingly, PETA now wants to manage Naruto the macaque monkey's monetary interests.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

The photo as it appears on Wikimedia screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

There's nothing worse than when stars are cheated out of their rightful earnings.

This, I am sure, is at the Hollywoodesque heart of a lawsuit brought against a photographer and others.

The photograph is a famous selfie taken with photographer David Slater's camera. It's a selfie of Naruto, a macaque monkey, taken on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi in 2011 when the monkey grabbed Slater's camera, posed and clicked

The selfie has already been the subject of controversy. Slater threatened to sue Wikimedia, claiming he owns the copyright to the photograph. (The image still sits on Wikimedia's pages.) Wikimedia argued not that the monkey owned the copyright, but that the photo wasn't copyrightable because animals can't own a copyright.

Now Slater is being sued by the bastion of animal propriety, People's Egalitarian Trial Association. I'm sorry, I meant the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

PETA's lawsuit (PDF), filed Monday in a San Francisco federal court, names as defendants not only Slater and his company, Wildlife Personalities, but also Blurb, a San Francisco-based publishing company. Blurb published some of Slater's work, including two Naruto selfies.

In addition to Naruto, plaintiffs include macaque expert Antje Engelhardt and PETA as Naruto's "next friends."

From the US Copyright Office's Compendium. Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Naturally, PETA says it's making history.

"If we prevail in this lawsuit, it will be the first time that a nonhuman animal is declared the owner of property, rather than being declared a piece of property himself or herself," PETA general counsel Jeffrey Kerr said in a statement.

I fancy there will be many who sympathize with PETA. They will say, "How dare this photographer make money off another animal's work? This is exploitation."

I worry, though, that exploitation is everywhere. You might worry, for example, how PETA can legally prove that Engelhardt and PETA are Naruto's friends.

Naruto is an intelligent being. Has he expressed his support for PETA's aims or is he rather keen on survival of the fittest?

Does he like the ads that PETA runs? Could he have been comfortable with reports that PETA was going to launch a porn site? Which it actually did. Does Naruto have a view about copyright laws in general? Is he the possessive sort even? Would he, in fact, vote for Bernie Sanders?

Does he think his name is Naruto? Moreover, as a resident of an Indonesian rainforest, how much sway does he have in the California courts with which the lawsuit has been graced? The lawsuit explains that Naruto's rights "cannot be effectively vindicated except through an appropriate representative." Should that read "self-appointed appropriate representative"?

Then there's the US Copyright Office. Clause 313.2 of its Compendium of Office Practices says, "This office will not register works produced by nature, animals or plants." It even offers as an example, "a photograph taken by a monkey." (Another example: "A mural painted by an elephant.")

Forgive my surreal musings. I can tell you've already skipped to what PETA's lawsuit wants.

Your eyeballs will freeze like a December day in Detroit when I tell you that the organization is seeking "monetary damages as well as an injunction banning the sale or publication of the photographs. PETA, as 'next friend' to Naruto, seeks the court's permission to manage the copyright in the photos, license them for commercial use, and use 100 percent of the proceeds for the benefit of Naruto and his community, without compensation to PETA."

For his part, Slater said the lawsuit has made him "angry and sad."

"I am currently working hard alongside the Selamatkanyaki crested macaque conservation project to further more human interest and conservation in these astounding animals," he said. "PETA's actions are disrespectful and ignorant of all the work so far done and what can be achieved in the future.

"With an organization who seeks to criminalize a wildlife photographer to further their own agenda only makes them appear as bad as Wikimedia, with both lacking integrity and honor and a knowledge of copyright law," Slater said.

Had PETA contacted him, Slater said he would have supported efforts to get animals recognized legally. He insists he still intends to take legal action against Wikimedia. He believes it and PETA are merely acting in their own selfish interests.

"PETA are now guilty of distracting from the original intention of the photos, which is to alert people to these animals, their plight of survival, their brilliant personalities and similarities to us, so we can learn to be more genuine and humble," he said. "We need to learn from these monkeys in Sulawesi, and not the monkeys at PETA and Wikimedia who care only for their own image."

In reaction to Slater's comments, PETA's general counsel Jeff Kerr told me: "This case is about protecting the intellectual property rights of Naruto, whom Slater admits took the famous selfie photo. Just like any other author of an original work, Naruto should be entitled to legal protection, and the proceeds from the photo should be going to protect the disappearing habitat of Naruto and the other critically endangered crested macaques, whose species faces extinction from encroaching humans because they are being killed for bushmeat and in retaliation for simply foraging for food."

I'm sure there are (some) hearts in right places here, even if many might feel there are misplaced brains.

PETA did not immediately respond to a request for further comment on the matter. However, I'm concerned that PETA's claims of wishing to make history are holding hands a little too tightly with its wish to make publicity.

Updated, September 23 at 8:47 a.m. PT: Added comment from PETA.