Monkeying with Copyright

I started writing a while back about the monkey who snatched a camera from a wildlife photographer and started taking pictures, but somehow the article never got finished. I can’t remember why, but suspect it wandered into musings about ‘monkeys‘ and ‘blunts‘ on Fleet St (remember Fleet St?) and the esoterica of copyright and slowly faded out in a million diversions. Quite a few of the things I write rather end that way, though just occasionally I’ll scrape them up and  tighten them enough to see the light of day. Or maybe I just fell asleep when writing it and forgot to save it when I woke up.

You’ll have read about the monkey selfie. If not, read it here. The picture and story went viral in 2011, but what brought it back to attention in 2014 was the attempt by the owner of the camera, David Slater, to get Wikipedia to take down the picture on the grounds that rather than being, as Wikipedia stated ‘Public Domain’, it was copyright and that he owned that copyright.

Wikipedia, after its usual long process of internal discussion, disagreed, arguing that under US Copyright law a photograph has to be taken by a human being to be copyrighted. And a recent post in ArsTechnica confirms that US Copyright Office agrees: a “photograph taken by a monkey” is unprotected intellectual property.

Here in the UK, things may be different. As ArsTechnica puts it:

“Under UK federal law, however, Slater could claim the intellectual property rights to the picture—even if he didn’t press the shutter—if the image is part of his “intellectual creation.

While this reflects an interesting view of the UK, a ‘federation’ which is currently looking increasingly likely to split up a little, the law in question actually applies rather more widely than we might think, with Wikipedia stating that as well as the whole of the United Kingdom, it also applies in Bermuda and Gibraltar, as well as to works “originating (by publication or nationality/domicile of the author) in the Isle of Man … Antigua, Dominica, Gambia, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Kiribati, Lesotho, St. Christopher-Nevis, St. Lucia, Swaziland and Tuvalu” and any other countries which were included in “the Imperial Copyright Act of 1911, or the 1956 Acts.”

A similar feature in the Telegraph – which ArsTechnica links to as its source – concludes:

“In the UK, under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988, a photographer can claim rights over an image even if he or she did not press the shutter button if the results are their “intellectual creation” – for example, they came up with the concept of a monkey taking a “selfie””

They go on to say that it is something that has never been tested in court, and it would seem to me not to apply in this case, where the snatching of the camera was clearly the monkey’s idea and not the intellectual creation of the photographer. The photographer’s intervention came only after the act.

In the ‘New Yorker‘ you can read what the monkey thinks of it all, at least according to Bill Barol. It actually contains a piece of good advice that many educational establishments in this country should heed, that “digital really lets novices shoot with abandon, and this the best way to learn” and that monkey does seems to have learnt fast, which an image that puts most human selfies to shame. Perhaps it’s a pity the camera was taken away from him, who knows what he might have gone on to produce.

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