For us over at Public Knowledge, the monkey selfie case has been more fun than a barrel of, well, monkeys. The case started when a Celebes crested macaque stole a camera from a traveling British photographer and, in the course of monkeying around with the camera, took a particularly attractive picture of itself. The photographer said that he owned the copyright in the photo; the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals responded with a lawsuit on behalf of the monkey, claiming that the monkey was the true owner of the copyright.
Last Friday, the case came to a quick end: a federal judge ruled that the monkey did not and could not own a copyright, throwing the case out of court. The judge’s opinion (which sadly and unlike the present blog post was no monkey house of puns) reasoned quite simply that copyright requires an author, no court has ever read the term “author” to include monkeys, and therefore no copyright, end of story.
It was an easy conclusion to reach, especially given that the appeals court sitting above that judge had already considered and rejected an attempt by a lawyer purportedly representing “all the world’s whales, porpoises, and dolphins” to bring a series of environmental lawsuits. Apparently courts are quite used to receiving and rejecting attempts at animal-brought lawsuits. Our own attorney Meredith Rose is fond of citing Miles v. City Council of Augusta, dismissing a lawsuit brought on behalf of Blackie the talking cat—among other things, the federal court there said there was no need for a lawyer to speak on behalf of the cat, given that “Blackie can clearly speak for himself.”
But while the case itself is unremarkable, the monkey wrench that the case players threw into the public discourse certainly is. The photographer whose camera was stolen used his purported copyright to threaten those who used the photo even for important public discussion—he even demanded that Public Knowledge take down its commentary about the case. And PETA, in the mix, posed an even larger possibility of wrongly tying up the photo with copyright (the photographer can at least sell copyright licenses; how does a monkey do that?).
These unfounded claims of ownership can send a damaging message. They suggest to people that copyright is a way to suppress public discourse; that cease-and-desist letters can work even for copyright infringement claims without merit. Monkey see, monkey do, and suddenly we have companies sending even millions of copyright letters, sometimes intended more to confuse the public than to defend legitimate rights.
Copyright threats like these appear to work because some people assume that everything that looks creative must have a creator and an owner. But those who ape this claim are mistaken. While human authorship is indeed responsible for much great art, it is not the sole originator of art. Mathematical patterns, though defined by strict and simple rules preceding humankind, can harbor sublime beauty. The happy accidents of nature, the camera click of Curious George, can be just as intriguing as a staged portrait.
Beauty from nature or serendipity belongs to no one, because it belongs to everyone: it is in the public domain, for all to use, enjoy, and improve upon. And it should belong to the public, for it is the source of inspiration of all creative products: truth, being stranger than fiction, gives rise to the best of fiction and other creativity. I hope that never changes, and if it does…well I’ll be a monkey's uncle.