Who really owns a monkey’s selfie?

BY Justin Scuiletti  August 7, 2014 at 1:50 PM EST
Should a selfie photograph taken by a monkey be able to be copyrighted by the camera's owner, or does it belong in the  public domain?

If a monkey steals your camera and takes a photo, can you claim copyright on it? Photo from Wikimedia Commons

A copyright battle over who owns the rights to a monkey’s selfie is going bananas.

In 2011, nature photographer David Slater was capturing images of crested black macaques in Indonesia when one of the animals took his camera while Slater was looking the other way. The macaque went on to take several photos with the photographer’s equipment, including a selfie photo that went viral. As the photo found its way around the internet, one of its landing places was Wikimedia Commons, a database of public domain and Creative Commons-licensed images and other media.

“This file is in the public domain,” a notice for the picture on Wikimedia states, “because as the work of a non-human animal, it has no human author in whom copyright is vested.”

Slater, however, didn’t agree with the interpretation. Wikimedia’s transparency report, published Wednesday revealed that the photographer filed a takedown request in 2012 on the grounds of being the copyright holder. “We didn’t agree, so we denied the request,” editors wrote in the report.

The revelation of the back-and-forth has sparked a debate over how copyright ownership has been determined. Quartz used the popular Ellen DeGeneres 2014 Oscar selfie as an example.

Questions of selfie intellectual property aren’t limited to animals. It’s not clear, for instance, who owns the copyright to the now-famous Oscar selfie: Ellen DeGeneres, who coordinated the photo? Bradley Cooper, who actually took it? Samsung, which made the camera and played a role in arranging the stunt? Or perhaps the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hosts the Oscars? And does it matter that the selfie was distributed on Twitter, a social media platform?

There may soon be an official ruling from the courts on the matter. According to the Washington Post, Slater is “seeking legal counsel” in the U.S., the home of the Wikimedia Foundation.