Monkey Selfie

August 15, 2014

There are a lot of interesting conflicts these days in the world of digital publishing. But here’s one I didn’t see coming: interspecies copyright disputes.

According to the August 7 Guardian (UK) and the August 6 Washington Post, British photographer David Slater was taking photos in an Indonesian forest back in 2011. His primary target was crested black macaques, which are in the primate family.

He left his tripod and camera alone for a few minutes. And in those moments, one macaque grabbed the camera and took a series of selfies. That’s right: monkey selfies.

One image in particular has gone viral. It’s wonderful. (See links above.)

So what’s the conflict? Wikimedia says the image was made by a macaque, who has asserted no copyright claim; hence the image falls into the public domain. Slater says it was his camera, after all. He has received no compensation for the images, and has claimed that it’s “ruining his business.” I don’t get that. I’d never heard of David Slater before, and now I have. I would think it’s a pretty good business card.

It occurs to me that there are elephants who paint, and even some who do self-portraits. Who owns the copyright to those works?

I’m putting out the call right now. Surely there are parrots who have recorded themselves singing, cats who have taken their own videos. We don’t want to be specist about this. Why should the maker movement be limited to people?

JAMES LARUE jlarue[at] writes, speaks, and consults on the future of libraries.