Monkey Business is Serious Business – US Copyright Case

Monkey Business: this idiom typically relates to silliness or foolishness. The irony of the phrase is surely not lost on David Slater, the photographer who has been dragged through a two year legal battle with PETA over copyright.

PETA is a charity, which stands for “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals”. You might expect that Mr Slater had done something which, in some way, degrades or damages the monkeys and the charity has sued him through the US court system as a way of teaching him a crucial lesson. No – this appeal case saga is about whether a monkey should get credit for taking a photograph.  

Mr Slater spent several days building the trust of the monkeys to allow him to get close to them and take his professional photographs. Mr Slater had stepped away from one of his cameras and then, depending on your leanings in this case, one of two things happened:

1. a curious monkey picked the camera up and pushed the button whilst handling the device, accidentally taking a ‘selfie’; or 

2. an artistic monkey picked the camera up, framed the shot and when the composition of the photograph was just right, it took a ‘self portrait’ with the camera.

Copyright is the biggest part of intellectual property rights, insofar as the sheer quantity of work which is covered by copyright protection. PETA lost the case first time round as it was held that a monkey did not have the same rights to intellectual property and was not a legal person for this purpose. Not satisfied with having sued the human photographer on behalf of a monkey, PETA appealed the decision.

So Mr Slater had to troop off to court again – how convenient that the collective noun for monkeys is a troop! This week, the appeal was rejected, leaving Mr Slater the legal victor, if such a thing is possible after the cost, hassle and stress of being sued in the US.

At their core, intellectual property rights are the reward for creativity, granting the ‘artist’ the right to exploit and commercialise his or her work and providing that artist with the means by which to prevent third parties from copying the image. Let us revisit the argument submitted by PETA – that these rights ought properly to vest in a monkey and that Mr Slater was breaching the monkey’s rights, and presumably affecting its ability to commercialise its portfolio of images.

Piers Morgan was horrified by this case. He shared with the nation a hilarious but rather splendid impression of a monkey on Good Morning Britain this morning (13 September 2017), forcing a director of PETA to explain that she didn’t speak monkey and the monkey did not speak English. The Good Morning Britain interview can be seen here.

Notwithstanding the outcome of the case, Mr Slater has been generous and has agreed to donate 25% of the revenues from the copyright to PETA.

As someone who works with creative people and artists, this case seems absolutely bananas!!

Caroline Pigott is a specialist Intellectual Property, Technology and Media Solicitor. We are always delighted to talk without obligation about whether we might meet your needs. Call Caroline on 0131 225 8705 or email cpigott@thorntons-law.co.uk

Categories: Intellectual Property

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