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Don't Let a Monkey Steal Your Copyright

Well,  here's a copyright issue you don't see every day. In 2011, British wildlife photographer David Slater visited the jungles of Indonesia, where he encountered a friendly female macaque monkey. Perhaps against his better judgment, Slater handed the monkey his camera - a history-making move that resulted in the first known selfie taken by a monkey.

The image of the simian sporting a toothy grin quickly went viral. Among those posting the image online was Wikimedia Commons,  an online media file repository that makes available public domain and freely-licensed educational media content, including, sound and video clips, to everyone. That's when Slater filed a complaint, demanding that the photo be taken down. 

Wikimedia Commons challenged back - and won. Why? Simply stated, because monkeys can't hold copyright, and neither can cameras. Though Slater owned the camera that captured the image, he didn't snap the picture himself. And because the being who did snap the image isn't human, the images immediately is deemed to be in the public domain.

According to the recently released draft of the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, Third Edition, "The U.S. Copyright Office will register an original work of authorship, provided that the work was created by a human being… The Office will not register works produced by nature, animals, or plants. Likewise, the Office cannot register a work purportedly created by divine or supernatural beings, although the Office may register a work where the application or the deposit copy(ies) state that the work was inspired by a divine spirit."

Topping the list of non-copyrightable examples is, not surprisingly, a photograph taken by a monkey and a mural painted by an elephant.

Slater's experience also illustrates the issue of international copyright rule differences. Though Slater is British, the image was snapped in Indonesia, which means it's subject to Indonesian copyright law. By the way, under copyright laws of both the United Kingdom and Indonesia, the definition of an author refers to "a person." So Slater's out of luck in those countries, too.

The moral of this monkey of a story is this - Be careful who, or what, handles your camera, and when snapping images while traveling abroad, make sure you know the applicable laws. For help in protecting your photographs and other created material, contact Orlando's Daniel Law Offices at 866-37PATENT.

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