The Government Weighs In on the Great Monkey-Selfie Controversy of 2014

A blog about business and economics.
Aug. 22 2014 12:13 PM

The Government Weighs In on the Great Monkey-Selfie Controversy of 2014

selfie_1.jpg.crop.promovarmediumlarge
Smiling with the newfound knowledge his image is in the public domain.

The copyright gods have spoken, and David Slater is out of luck. The British photographer has been in a tiff with the Wikimedia Foundation over the rights to the self-portrait (above) that a wild monkey took after hijacking his camera during an expedition to Indonesia. Slater argued the rights were his. Wikipedia argued the image belongs to the public domain, because only works by humans can be copyrighted.

This week, the U.S. Copyright Office weighed in decisively on the side of Wikimedia, declaring in updated rules that no, you cannot claim the rights to a photo taken by a primate. (Two law professors I spoke with earlier this month said pretty much the same.) "Because copyright law is limited to 'original intellectual conceptions of the author,' the Office will refuse to register a claim if it determines that a human being did not create the work," the rule states. Then it gets into some pretty priceless specifics: 

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.
Examples:
• A photograph taken by a monkey.
• A mural painted by an elephant.
• A claim based on the appearance of actual animal skin.
• A claim based on driftwood that has been shaped and smoothed by
the ocean.
• A claim based on cut marks, defects, and other qualities found in
natural stone.
Advertisement

So the famous monkey selfie belongs to the public. And if you think God has burnt an image of Jesus into your toast or carved the Virgin Mary's face into your backyard tree, you can't copyright that either.

Jordan Weissmann is Slate's senior business and economics correspondent.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Altered State

The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender

What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?

Surprise! The Women Hired to Fix the NFL Think the NFL Is Just Great.

You Shouldn’t Spank Anyone but Your Consensual Sex Partner

Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
Altered State
Sept. 17 2014 11:51 PM The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 18 2014 6:00 AM All Shook Up My 11-year-old has been exploring herself with my “back massager.” Should I stop her?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 8:25 PM A New Song and Music Video From Angel Olsen, Indie’s Next Big Thing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 9:00 PM Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 18 2014 7:30 AM Red and Green Ghosts Haunt the Stormy Night
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 17 2014 3:51 PM NFL Jerk Watch: Roger Goodell How much should you loathe the pro football commissioner?